The set creepily suggests The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while shadows surround what looks like a menacing interrogation of a vulnerable man named Mann. Instead, within seconds you could feel as if you've bought a ticket to Monty Python's Flying Circus. Then something more serious emerges in The Clockmaker, there in that off-balance place where yet-untold impact looms.
In this fascinating new play, receiving its U.S. premiere at City Theatre, Stephen Massicotte offers much more than what meets the eye and ear. And, as the theatrical machine moves up, down, left, right, forward and back, words and phrases repeat and repeat. And you wonder what will come next and why, and what is the meaning of this other world around some corner.
Ponder it, and try to remember after you have turned another corner outside in the real world. But, inside, sitting in safety, you cannot help but admire Harry Bouvy as Mr. Mann. In constantly appealing, superbly realized dimensions, he brings forth a wonderful cross between innocent, vulnerable Stan Laurel and one of Michael Palin's sweet, humble twits. Bouvy never falters. Bouvy never fails. His timing and his pace come wound to perfection by director Tracy Brigden.
Brigden has the whole thing meshing perfectly, with three other artists creating equally enduring dimensions and movements. Tami Dixon, as Frieda Mannheim, adds further shine to her penchant for portraying dewy-eyed damsels. As Frieda's alternately abusive and repentant husband, Adolphus, Joel Ripka's dark menace aptly suggests a man who will pendulum forever, never knowing which way he will turn. Daryll Heysham's Monsieur Pierre, hovering somewhere outside what frames the others, expertly keeps the conundrums dangling. And Eric Shimilonis' fine original music punctuates resoundingly.
The surface: Mann makes unusual clocks, and new potential customer Frieda needs one repaired. Those two are magnetically pulled toward each other, as if love ticks inside their hearts. But memory plays tricks, so that yesterday's noon looks just like today's. And, somewhere, some day, Adolphus' strong fingers could summon midnight.
Around 9 p.m. in this hour-and-a-half experience, things seem to be winding down, moving nowhere new. Then, all of a sudden, the ghosts of Elmer Rice's twists and turns in The Adding Machine show another face which you may not have expected.
You may think all is revealed. But must it be? Think instead of this as remarkable, memorable theater. That would be enough in itself.
The Clockmaker continues through Feb. 14. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. 412-431-2489 or www.citytheatrecompany.org