Matthew Freeman's new play When Is a Clock is begging to be reset. At its heart, there's an ornate metaphysical mystery (something of a cross between Paul Auster and Jorge Luis Borges), with the sort of creepy poetry that allows dandruff to be described as "shavings . . . like someone put a little cheese grater to his milky skull" and a woman's transformation into a clock as "Her legs curled up inside her, her arms wrapped backwards, her head lowered into her widening neck. All of this sounds so . . . thundering and bizarre. But it was graceful. Like origami." But around this well-fashioned analog core, there's a slick, winking digital comedy that seems like effluvium from Mr. Freeman's recent, pointed one-acts (Trayf and The White Swallow). A clock can track both night and day, but When Is a Clock would keep better time if it excised the shallow office scenes, toned down the exaggerated cop, and focused on the family drama. (Don't get me wrong: I like Freeman's talented usual suspects, Matthew Trumbull and David DelGrosso, but here, they are more distracting than helpful.)
Just to be clear, Gordon (Tom Staggs) describes himself as such: "I bloom. I molt. I get well. I get ill." When his wife, Bronwyn (Tracey Gilbert), suddenly vanishes, it's not a total surprise: Gordon is soft, and he has raised his idiotic son, Alex (Beau Allulli) to be the same; as he puts it, he's not even strong enough to be abusive. However, these-grand-scheme-of-things declarations ("I decided, then and there, then and there, that I was going to be in love with her") are at odds with Gordon's decisive quest to find his wife, a chronologically fragmented romp through Pennsylvania. They also don't match up with Gordon's affairs; Lucy (Megan Tusing) points out, after she's had a "towel laid under her ass," that he doesn't even bother to hide the ring. Nor do they match with the way Staggs plays the role -- how (or really, why) a milquetoast like him goes about picking up underage girls is beyond me.
Bronwyn, on the other hand, has significantly more development: she longs for change, not just in her routine life, but in her own physical body. ("I'll always have only my eyes. My hands. My wrists.") As a result, she is drawn to the creepy, soft-spoken Sean (Ian Gould, who makes the role a bit too childish), the metaphorical and actual other man who is able to transform her into a clock. Unfortunately, many of these key scenes are set behind a scrim that's never transparent enough. I'd say that Kyle Ancowitz chooses this staging to represent moments that happen outside Gordon's narrative voice, except that scenes between Alex and the Cop operate without any such illusion. What's more, while these lines read well in a script, on stage, shuffled between off-handedly comic moments, it's easy to miss Bronwyn's lack of empathy: "If you can't take care of your children, you will not learn how to. If you can't cry when something terrible happens, but you can cry at Kleenex commercials, in the end, you will find yourself empty and cold and that's not something you can decide. [Pause] I cannot do anything. I could not. I could not do anything."
I make these criticisms because, for all that, When Is a Clock is a blast of originality. Mr. Freeman has a strong, richly descriptive voice that is well-served by the stretches of desolate narrative, and the complex ideas at play are the better for all the simple details. At one point, Sean describes the invention of the moving image, a device created from the pure desire to know and capture what is happening. This is what the good playwright does; as he puts it, "We watch things move, because it's impossible." However, the playwright falls into his own trap, for the reverse of that purity is what the moving image became -- simple entertainment -- and with such overt and unnecessary comic scenes weighing down that elegant motion, When Is a Clock is just going around in circles.