The American Clock,” a panoramic observation of the Great Depression, has been rewound to inaugurate a season of Arthur Miller plays at the Signature Theater’s attractive new Off Broadway home on 42nd Street. The drama, inspired by Studs Terkel’s “Hard Times,” failed to win critical approval on Broadway in 1980, and 17 years later its first act remains rich, vivid and touching while the second half is weighted with unnecessary clutter and commentary. A docu-video that traces subsequent events in American history makes for a pretentious finale.
Fifteen actors take on some 50 roles as victims or survivors of the crash, from farmers and bankers to hobos and suicidal Wall Streeters. The early focus is centered upon the Baum family and their struggle to overcome the dissipation of the American dream. Moe (Lewis J. Stadlen) moves from an assured patriarch to a man whose spirit has been crushed. Laura Esterman, as Rose, the valiant, long-suffering wife, gives a beautifully textured performance as she pawns the last of her jewelry to make ends meet. Her poignant monologue as she finds comfort in a Gershwin tune reaffirms the Miller magic.
But only some of the scenes are so sharply focused. As the Baums are submerged in a passing parade of farm auctions, ideological rhetoric, homeless vagabonds and marathon dancers, the sprawling narrative moves from an early peak to a congested finale. Under director James Houghton’s fluent staging, the show very nearly becomes a musical revue, with the ensemble even engaging in song and dance to Harold Arlen’s encouraging “Get Happy.”
The cast displays much versatility, swiftly changing roles with easy access to costumes and props hanging in the wings. Patrick Husted is a standout in a feverishly humorous account of a successful corporate executive.
A red-and-white striped playing space is set against a cloudy blue sky, accented by a clean and cutting light design. A quartet of barroom musicians accompanies the action, the flow of familiar melodies perhaps the most persuasive and enduring echo of the era.