When is a Clock
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 19, 2008
Matt Freeman's new play When is a Clock is a mystery wrapped around an enigma.
No, really, it is. The outer layer is the mystery: the murky story of Gordon, a guy whose wife disappears one day, literally without a trace. Through flashbacks that skip back and forth through the recent and not-so-recent past, we watch Gordon follow the only clue he has—a book called "Traveling to Montpelier" that Bronwyn, his wife, had apparently obtained in a town called Cornersville, at the other end of their home state of Pennsylvania—in his attempt to discover what has become of her. We also witness his meetings with a police officer who possibly believes that Gordon has murdered his wife.
The inner layer, the enigma at the heart of When is a Clock, is harder to write about without giving surprises away. Freeman layers on moments from Gordon's marriage to Bronwyn: happy times and bitter times, crazy happenings at work, phone conversations between Gordon and his teenage son Alex, snippets from a one-night stand in Cornersville with a local girl named Lucy, other events I can't really divulge. What do they add up to: what do they finally reveal about the existence of Bronwyn and Gordon? I left the play not entirely certain, having formed two different theories that felt reasonably supported by the play's action. And it occurs to me that Freeman might tell me that the play is "about" something entirely different were I to ask him to explain it to me.
When is a Clock is certainly tantalizing and fascinating to watch. Around Gordon and Bronwyn are a variety of singular eccentrics, starting with their mixed-up son Alex; and definitely including Caldwell (not sure if that's his first or last name), Gordon's loose-tongued employer; and Sean, a man in Cornersville who may have sold his wife the "Traveling to Montpelier" book.
The most engaging character, though, is the policeman, played with stolid seriousness of purpose and solid comic timing by frequent Freeman collaborator David DelGrosso. This guy, notwithstanding his uniform and his job, is the every-victim that too many Americans have allowed themselves to be turned into, overloaded by statistics that are sometimes misleading, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes downright wrong, swayed by their apparent weightiness nonetheless and consequently in a perpetual state of "if-you-see-something-say-something" paranoia. He says things like:
When, when, when you expose one half of one half of all Americans to four hours of around three hundred murders, rapes, kidnappings, and assaults over the course of a season of television, you're going to create precisely, and we have this figure available on our website, around 500,000 potential major felons a night...
Matthew Trumbull is memorable is his scene as the strange Caldwell, and Beau Allulli is on-target as the vexed, confused son. Tracey Gilbert and Tom Staggs play Bronwyn and Gordon, and they get the ordinariness of these people but didn't convey to me what finally makes either of them tick. But I'm not sure When is a Clock—forgive the pun—is really about ticking, at least not where its two main characters are concerned.
The play, directed by Kyle Ancowitz, features a smashing abstract set design by Robert Monaco, and perfectly evocative lighting and sound by Daniel Meeker and Brandon Wolcott, respectively. A mesmerizing video of driving through a small town in Pennsylvania (uncredited) sets the stage for the play by being run in a loop before the show begins and then returns at key moments within the narrative. In the video it's unclear how you'd ever get to the houses that line the street (there don't seem to be any visible driveways or even cross-streets), and that's reflected in the play itself, where even the answers to the outer mystery fail to fully illuminate the deeper questions posed at its enigmatic center.