Charles A. Duncombe's new play at City Garage, "Timepiece," pays homage to the mid-20th century theater of the absurd: those bleak yet antic plays by Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and others that drove home the futility of mankind's search for meaning in the universe.
Once an avant-garde movement, absurdism has gathered some dust in the intervening years. Duncombe and his longtime collaborator, director Frédérique Michel, so carefully reproduce its tropes — a queasily undefined setting, archetypal characters, pointedly unpredictable behavior, a deep-seated, vaguely Sputnik-era fear of machinery — that this production could be a revival of some forgotten classic, unearthed perhaps from a fallout shelter.
Betty (Renee Ulloa-McDonald), an energetic young woman reading a romance novel aloud to herself, is interrupted by a guy in whiteface described in the program as the Timekeeper (Jeffrey Gardner). Pleasant if cryptic about his motives, he sidles onstage in a mechanical manner and hands Betty an oversized alarm clock, set for an hour and a half and urgently ticking.
Betty is unable to put the clock down. She solicits passersby to help her: Burt (Bo Roberts), a grumpy misogynist who finds her predicament offensive; Bob (Anthony M. Sannazaro), who wants to be her hero; Bernice (Katrina Nelson), who has fled her own home out of fear of her devices; Bebe (Nili Rain Segal), a bored, wealthy beauty; Billie (Megan Kim), who lives naked inside a refrigerator and suffers from a kind of cosmic agoraphobia; and Superman (Johanny Paulino), just a guy wearing a Superman T-shirt, who carries a gun and has vengeance on his mind.
Most of them have chosen clothing in the same red, black and white palette (courtesy of costume designer Josephine Poinsot).
The characters take turns delivering rants, summing up their various existential quandaries, each moving in a distinctive, repetitive way that suggests the inner workings of some enormous, sinister device.
Their speeches, delivered eloquently, are absorbing in their headlong, stream-of-consciousness style. The topics are diverse and relatable — so much so that the piece occasionally feels like "The Breakfast Club" as rewritten by Camus — and at moments darkly comic.
After delivering the most soul-chilling disquisition of all, Superman tells Betty, "I hope you can find some comfort in that."
Although there is little chance of a happy ending for poor Betty or her new friends, there is an odd comfort to be found in absurdism, as Duncombe reminds us in this affectionate tribute.
In Anthony M. Sannazaro's gorgeous video backdrop of floating clouds, I started seeing or imagining the eyes of some kindly disposed god. The human compulsion to find meaning, even if doomed to failure, has certainly led to some wild and entertaining theories.