By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Swenson
By David Villano
By Kyle Swenson
By John Thomason
By Michele Eve
Is hell really "other people," as Jean Paul Sartre so succinctly put it in No Exit? Or is it the absence of people — the deadening loneliness of isolation, with nothing but time's inevitable march to keep you company? That's one of the questions inherently posed in The Timekeepers, Dan Clancy's Spartan drama, set in the exitless Hades of a Holocaust labor camp.
In the play's sobering, engrossing production from Island City Stage, Michael McKeever plays Benjamin, a retiring Jewish watchmaker shuttered in a prison camp to mend timepieces taken from the wrists of fellow victims. His job consists of tinkering with bezels, crowns, and dials, scrubbing away the monograms of previous owners so the repaired watches can grace the shameless arms of Nazis. He's proud of his work to a fault, as we find out, and he'd prefer to continue it in silence — but then he's subjected to a cellmate in the form of Hans (Mike Westrich), a flamboyantly gay hustler.
Clancy fills his script with (perhaps one too many) double-entendres about time, and it suffices to say that Westrich's Hans is like the second hand, always in motion, his fear couched in perpetual chatter, while McKeever's Benjamin is a minute hand — slow and measured in his movements, short on speech. McKeever is known for playing fast-talking, cosmopolitan characters, but he emerges far out of his pigeonhole for this one. Director Michael Leeds subversively taps McKeever's potential for nebbishy, bookish restraint. The same anti-typecasting can be said for Matt Stabile, whose suave onstage persona in shows like Shorts Gone Wild and The Beebo Brinker Chronicles is markedly absent from his expertly played role as a sadistic SS officer.
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Anyway, this "queer" Hans and "Jew" Benjamin don't like each other, and their cultural prejudices are absurdly present in the face of their imminent extinction. One of the play's most effective messages is that the fear and persecution of "the other" is a societal norm, with or without the state-sanctioned scourge of Nazism.
But they're forced to communicate: Benjamin can teach Hans horology — watchmaking — thus retaining the gay man's value in the camp, and Hans, who has developed an intimate contact within the SS, can find information about Benjamin's family members, who have been scattered across other camps. For this odd couple, the situation could be worse: They share an affinity for opera, if not for the same composer, and their debates result in some much-needed comic relief. Mostly, though, their relationship moves in cycles of friendship and contention, revelation and sacrifice, as the days drag on and the crate of broken watches grows smaller.
The experience of sitting through The Timekeepers' unbroken 100 minutes can feel uncomfortable, which in this case is probably a compliment. Michael McClain's set design, a claustrophobic wooden coop enclosed by barbed wire, is appropriately stifling. We never forget that Ben and Hans are prisoners — livestock, really — retained only for their momentary functionality.
David Hart's sound design offers occasional aural glimpses of the outside world — barking guard dogs, Teutonic marches, whining warplanes. But his most potent contribution is the tick... tick... tick... of the timepieces. The more of them the characters fix, the faster their utility diminishes. It's nothing less than the sound of their own mortality, inching closer one second at a time.