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A CurtainUp Review
The Fastest Clock In the Universe

Another British playwright has arrived in town. His name is Philip Ridley. His play, The Fastest Clock in the Universe bears the prestigious imprimatur the Evening Standard's Most Promising Playwright Award of 1992 which, impressive as it is, doesn't quite equal the coattails of recent London hit status that has turned several other recent imports into major New York successes.

If the title strikes you as more like a children's fantasy than the hard-edged, gloomy comedies of life among the morals and taste challenged that have become the New Group's hallmark, you're not too far out in left field. Playwright Ridley has in fact published nine children's books and The Fastest Clock in the Universe makes more than a cursory bow to the brothers Grimm. Its central character, Cougar Glass, has a body brawny enough to live up to the first name and, in keeping with his surname, gazes into a looking glass as often and hopefully as the queen in Sleeping Beauty.

But before you grab the kids for a family theatrical outing, whoa! While Ridley blends fairy tale elements with reality based humor and melodrama, The Fastest Clock in the Universe is more suited to an X-Rating, (for emotional violence), than one of CurtainUp' s Kids-Appropriate buttons. Cougar Glass is cast in the very unheroic mold of a thirty-going-on-nineteen gay man who is convinced life's too short to have feelings for anyone besides himself. As he himself puts it "Fuck the milk of human kindness. . .welcome to the abattoir."

The abattoir is a living room kitchen over an erstwhile fur factory in London's East End, aptly designed by Zaniz Jakubowski, as grungy and dismal as the lives of its inhabitants: the youth obsessed unloving and unlovely Cougar (Bray Poor) and his equally obsessed lover (David Cale). The latter's obsessions are dead birds and Cougar and his name, Captain Tock, is also metaphoric (as in the absence of the tick-tock of the clocks not allowed in this shabby temple to keeping time at bay).

The plot plays over a single day, Cougar's thirtieth birthday. It is a day that has apparently become an annual ritual of pretending that Cougar is only nineteen. The ritual involves not only a cake and cards from non-existing adoring friends but, most importantly, a young male guest for this nasty birthday boy to seduce. This year's guest is a teenager with another tongue-in-cheek name, Foxtrot Darling, (Joey Kern). Cougar befriended him under false pretenses, (when his brother was dying of AIDS), but his planned seduction scheme capsizes when Foxtrot brings a very human ticking clock (with a time bomb instead of alarm mechanism)-- a pregnant fiancee named Sherbet Gravel (Ellie Mae McNulty). It all begins wordlessly with a bikini-clad Cougar oiling himself during a "tanning session" before a cheap sun lamp and ends with a melodramatic bang.

Besides its obvious links to previous New Group productions, The Fastest Clock bears even closer links to The Beauty Queen of Leenane; to be specific: The already mentioned dismal physical setting. . .  Like the mother and daughter in Leenane, Cougar and Captain 's relationship does not spare us the cruelties in their daily interaction. . . ; the more seemingly sympathetic daughter proves herself capable of dealing blows as well as being on the receiving end, the Captain is more than capable of brutally playing to Cougar's obsessive fear of age. . .  Both plays are fraught with touches of humor and with melodramatic elements.

Ah, and it's in the last of the above-mentioned comparison that Leenane, and Clock, part company. While I feel the former has been showered with somewhat too much hyperbolic praise, Martin McDonagh does have an extraordinary gift for language and especially for extracting humor even from the appalling. Thus, even within the predictably melodramatic format, we come away having met memorable characters.

Ridley also knows how to mine the darker corners of life for humor, but his tendency to go off into fantasy tends to rob his characters of the depth needed to make them memorable. His bent for the fantastic also undermines and weakens the melodrama. Okay, so we have the restructured Sleeping Beauty myth cum age-phobic, love-hate Gay relationship tale, but this is no excuse to also whip out a gun in order to end things with a bigger bang. Ridley plants his knife with some care, but that gun is a case of overkill.

To conclude with a note about the play's strengths. Director Jo Bonney has assembled a very creditable cast. David Cale is particularly good as the nail-biting, hug-starved Captain Tock as is Ellie Mae McNulty as the surprise guest at this turn-back-the-clock birthday party. Jeannette Landis in a minor role as a neighbor in a ratty mink made in the days before the fur factory turned into this human abattoir, has some fine comic moments, though the metaphoric link between the slaughter of minks and lifestyles seeded by an inhuman social order is something of a stretch. James Vermeulen's Lighting and Tim Schellenbaum's sound during the climactic finale are so good that you almost swallow what happens.

Other New Group Play about society-spawned moral bankrupts reviewed at CurtainUp:
This Is Our Youth
The Flatted Fifth
Other plays mentioned (alluded to) and on archive:
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
The Cripple of Inishmaan of Leenane
Shopping and Fucking

By Philip Ridley
Directed by Jo Bonney
With With David Cale, Bray Poor, Jeanette Landis, Joey Kern, Ellie Mae McNulty
Set: Zaniz Jakubowski
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lights: James Vermeulen
Sound: Tim Schellenbaum
New Group, at Intar, 420 W. 42d St. (279-4200)
4/28/98/98; opens 5/07/98

Reviewed 5/09 by Elyse Sommer

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