Americans in crisis throng the landscape of Arthur Miller's spacious mingling of family portraiture adn chronicle play at the Biltmore Theater. Turning the calendar back to the late 1920s and '30s, Mr. Miller recalls the great depression and its effects on a cross-section of his fellow citizens. For his first Broadway production in eight years, Mr. Miller has written" a Mural for Theater." Like the satellite map that forms a backdrop for the multiple episodes , it is sweepingly impressionistic, ranging widely in mood, time, and geography.
Central to these historic extracts is the brooklyn home to which the Baum family retreats after Moe Baum (John Randolph) has lost his money and his business in the 1929 stock market crash. It is here that young Lee Baum (William Atherton) learns the hard facts of impoverishment as he takes his mother's jewels, piece by piece, to be pawned. When his Columbia bike is stolen , Lee walks to the pawnshop.
Rose Baum (John Copeland) is a woman whose greatest pleasure is singing the popular songs of the day to her won piano accompaniment. Her cherished grand ultimately goes the way of all the other family possessions.
Mr. Miller acknowledges Studs Terkel's "Hard Times" as the inspiration for "The American Clock." But the play-wright has stated that more and more of his own life went into the manuscript as he developed it. So this crowded, semi-autobiographical work becomes a selective group portrait of Americans in the depression years, with the Baums and their next-of-kin as central figures. The displaced and dspossessed of this sweeping retrospective include the rich and powerful, an evicted Iowa farmer who has somehow made it to Brooklyn, and a group of welfare applications besieging a harried, irascible cler.
Lee Baum, the play's narrator-participant, begins as a high-schooler in knee breeches and winds up realizing his ambition to become a bigtime sports writer after attending Ohio State University. On the way, he does menial labor, gets a job with the New Deal WPA, and works briefly on a Mississippi riverboat. (He hears a Roosevelt broadcast in the company of a red-neck Louisiana sheriff and a black cook in a diner.) Meanwhile, the depression is taking its toll of the elder Baums. Father afield, Hitler is on the rise and Pearl Harbor is in the Making.
The fleeting scenes -- the narrative, personal drama, humorous observation, and folk color -- all serve as fragments in the Miller mosaid of American social history. Indeed, "The American Clock" seems at times almost too fragmentary. Some of the scenes are played virtually like review sketches -- an understandable circumstance considering that most cast members fill two or more roles.
Yet "The American Clock" never fails to hold the spectator's interest. Mr. Miller communicates his affection for and fascination with the people whose lives and times he is chronicling. Under Vivian Matalon's direction, they fill the stage of the Biltmore Theater with a pulsing, occasionally furious energy that make their shared ordeal seem immediate and relevant.
The playing in many small roles as well as in the three principal parts is tru to the tone of a work that is romantic but not sentimental. Technical credits for an admirable production are shared by Karl Eigsti (scenery), Neil Peter Jampolis (lighting), Robert Wojewodski (costumes), Charles LoPresto (hair styles), and Robert Deniis (incidental music).