Arthur Miller lived 89 years, and wrote 27 plays after 1968's much-praised The Price. Few of those later works have been regularly produced, because, clearly, they don't equal his better earlier ones. So it is with 1980's The American Clock, produced by University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. While any chance to see Miller's work is welcome, despite many talented performances and a well-realized production, it becomes evident that American Clock has significant limitations
While Miller derived parts of the play from Studs Terkel's book Hard Times, it more resembles Ragtime The Musical, being an episodic, song-enriched panorama of American history. However, The American Clock does not feature an equally moving fictional story framed by portrayals of real people; all of the characters are invented, and it takes a long while for anything resembling concentrated drama to emerge.
Miller offers unimaginative dialogue about unionism, communism, suicides, dance marathons, foreclosures, brothers sparing dimes, FDR speeches and the WPA, sketching in the Boom to Bust period, 1929 through the late '30s. Today, we may be hovering on the edge of renewed economic hard times, but Miller's rarely eloquent text makes few substantive points about our society's ills then or now.
In portraying how the disastrous economy affected many people in many places, he ticks off the years, crowding the stage with 37 characters plus other nameless bodies, decorated with songs from the period's mainstream of American popular music. This deliberately vaudevillian pageant suggests a potential for Brecht-like irony, lightly skimming over a small icy pond. Witness the double meanings of lyrics such as those for "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries."
After a first act full of fragments, Miller narrows focus to the Baum family (evidently similar to his own) as it deals with changes of fortune. Here Miller's gift for portraying such dynamics kicks in, but not fully, nor enough to compensate for what has gone before.
Elena Alexandratos stands out with passion as the bewildered, volatile Rose Baum. She also sings superbly, with just a pre-recorded piano for back-up. Among Pitt students in the cast, Björn Ahlstedt well conveys the earnestness of Rose's son Lee, while Dangerfield Graham Moore comes across with substance as sometime millionaire Arthur A. Robertson, the observing, commenting narrator. Plus, student Dominque Johnson, appearing as a decorative Ziegfeld Girl, shows fine singing talent and a good sense of style.
Say, it's only a paper moon.
The American Clock continues through Sun., March 2. Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-624-7529 or www.pitt.edu/~play