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Theatre in Review: A Sign of the Times (Theatre 511)

Javier Muñoz. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Stephen Lloyd Helper's new play apparently focuses on the existential crisis of a traffic controller working outside a construction site, but he has much bigger things on his mind. This nameless character is that guy one sees all the time -- wearing a vest and hardhat, wielding a sign that says "stop" on one side, "slow" on the other. His manner is as sunny as they come, but don't you believe it. His troubles -- which take a while to be revealed -- manifest themselves in seemingly endless meditations on the meaning and contours of time. Indeed, his current profession was chosen because of the many opportunities it offers for quiet contemplation. "I needed to stop time," he says. "To try to figure out why things, things that make no sense, happen."

What follows is a series of verbal curlicues, all circling around the fact of life's ephemeral nature. The construction crew is working on the site of a torn-down clothing factory; on its exterior was an enormous clock that, disconnected and tossed to the ground, keeps ticking. Einstein is evoked, principally regarding how he was able to identify, across the eons, the existence of the Big Bang. Further thought is given to "some of this Einstein multiple-times-in-one-place stuff," which is then connected to the Periodic Table in a way that defies summarization. In case you were wondering, the boson particle is evoked as well. And, for the philosophically minded, there's this: "A second can change life from comedy to tragedy. Why is that?"

At this point, you might be wondering if a pop quiz is in the offing, but rest assured that the text is also sprinkled with sentimental flourishes and intentionally silly Dad jokes. The narrator frequently chats with his stop/slow sign, which he has named Fred. (It appears to be his most stable relationship.) He recalls telling his kids not to eat boysenberry ice cream, "'cause it's 'boysen'." Observing a construction crane at work, he wonders, "What could be more uplifting?" Talking about his wife, a research biologist, he says, "She injects them with experimental solutions and, mostly, they die. I used to tell her, 'Those aren't "solutions" to anything -- we know how to kill mice.' She called me a rat and threatened to test solutions on me! She could be so funny...in her way." One might add, in a very private way, at that.

The displays of scientific literacy, plus the dumb gags, quotes from Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, and a digression on Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Euripides all suggest that we are not in the presence of an everyday working stiff. Indeed, the narrator is a former physics professor whose life with his wife and two children spun out of control when his young son died of cancer. Certain details scattered through the text hint at this terrible event, but you have to cut through a thick underbrush of fancy writing before you arrive at it.

Which is really the problem with A Sign of the Times. The character's garrulous talk is little more than a series of delaying tactics -- no matter how artful and learned -- designed to put off the moment when we learn what is really eating at him. We never get a clear picture of the family's unraveling -- their apparently idyllic past remains largely a blank -- because Helper is too busy spinning out big-picture musings to focus on the tragedy at the play's heart. After a while the boy's death comes to seem like the baldest of devices, a terrible event cynically employed to lend significance to a windy essay on The Meaning of Life.

In the later passages, the author seems even more at sea, casting about for some kind of resolution. He dispatches the character to Purgatory, which is depicted as a vast bureaucracy. (Why do films and plays always make the afterlife seem like an overwhelmed social services agency? Surely, God is the apex of efficiency.) This is followed by a baffling trip, back on earth, to a hellish logging camp where the character endures his dark night of the soul. Helper also throws a ninth-inning curveball involving an aborted gay encounter that had me wondering how, if, or when A Sign of the Times might ever reach a conclusion. To put it in terms of the Periodic Table, the play consists of many elements, none of which form a coherent dramatic entity.

Javier Muñoz, an affable performer best known as the alternate (and, later, replacement) for the title role in Hamilton, brings his considerable charm to bear on this amorphous character, but he has been directed by Helper to linger, lovingly, over each little nugget of wisdom to such an extent that the evening runs desperately low on urgency long before it concludes. There is no set as such, but the lighting designer, Caitlin Smith Rapoport, provides a variety of looks, and David Van Tieghem supplies all kinds of sound effects, along with a preshow playlist of such thematically related hits as "Turn Back Time," "As Time Goes By," and, yes, "Time After Time." The projection designer, Kristen Ferguson, specializes in images of various objects being sucked into a vortex, presumably leading to a black hole.

Watching A Sign of the Times, I rather felt like I was slipping into a vortex myself. From so much straining for significance, you can get exhausted. The show has far too many things on its mind -- which, in the end, is the same thing as having nothing on its mind. -- David Barbour

(27 February 2020)

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