By Bill Hirschman
Despite how Island City Stage’s The Timekeepers reaches straight through your viscera, this tale of an equally prejudiced Jew and homosexual bonding in a concentration camp isn’t the archetypical wrenching, shattering Holocaust drama with emotional pyrotechnics.
Relying on manipulative memes would seem like settling for the easy score. Instead, director Michael Leeds and stars Michael McKeever and Mike Westrich triumph by navigating quietly and gingerly through the halting lessons in human connection that Fort Lauderdale playwright Dan Clancy has sketched for them.
That these three rivet the audience through a deliberately-paced story is a testament to their expertise – some of the best work all three have displayed locally.
Not only is this the best production by far from the LGBT-centric company with a varied track record, it’s one of the best dramas seen in the region this year with no asterisks or qualifiers.
In fact, it’s not the dialogue that is so affecting so much as the exclusionary silences so complete you can hear the theater’s air conditioner whirring. But the silences are interrupted by jarring sounds outside the crude shack where the protagonists work repairing watches: military boots tromping the yard, dogs barking angrily, the arrival of boxcars, the slamming of the screen door to the hut – and bursts of automatic gunfire. The sound of lives being taken has become so routine that it only causes the men to look up briefly from their work.
The three Michaels embrace those silences and the leisurely but tension-filled pacing, using them as eloquently as verbiage. Not many artists have that courage or skill.
They and Clancy refuse to resort to clichés even though virtually every plot development is schematically straightforward. For instance, although both characters learn from their relationship, neither has been unrealistically transmuted by the play’s end. They can only evolve so far from the deeply prejudiced men that they were when the play started. They never see what we see: the terrible irony of two persecuted minorities being prejudiced against each other. But they have recognized each other’s humanity and the worth of human connection despite the pain of losing it, a near certainty.
The play opens in a weather-worn hut in the Sachsenhausen camp in July 1940. Inside is prisoner 1793 laboring intently at a workbench repairing a wrist watch. From the moment the sickly yellow lights rise, McKeever lives so deeply inside this small bent-over man that while we recognize his features from so many other shows, he inhabits this middle-aged man blotting out the horrors outside by focusing on the intricacies of objects he talks to like his beloved daughter.
The screen door slams open and a surly prisoner who volunteers as a guard (Matt Stabile) ushers in a taller man clutching a blanket to his chest and hunching over in deferential fear, prisoner 9355. He has been brought here to help 1793 repair watches.
But the moment the guard leaves, 9355’s body language changes. He stands more erect and Westrich exudes a patently false bravado of whistling in the dark, flaunting a mildly flamboyant persona that he knows will aggravate 1793.
1793 refuses to be engaged by 9355’s prattling attempts to make him even acknowledge the man is standing there. 1793 knows that virtually anything, even breathing, can get you killed.
But 9355, who reveals his name is Hans, needs 1793’s expertise to stay alive. He has claimed to be able to repair watches, a complete lie meant to avoid ultimately fatal work in a concrete plant or becoming a guinea pig in medical experiments. But 1793, once the best horologist in Berlin, rebuffs every attempt to begin a conversation.
Slowly, tentatively, credibly, the men begin to make contact. The arc from here is inexorable if predictable. So it is a testament to the power of the three Michaels that it is compelling. 1793 admits his name is Benjamin Hershfeld. They share a love of opera, although they bicker over each other’s taste in composers. Both have their share of secrets and sins. Both keep their prejudices in check until one climactic explosion of mutual bigotry. But in a play that Clancy and Leeds paint with dread, life-and-death crossroads force each man to choose whether to exhibit the responsibility to their fellow man that most of the German nation did not.
McKeever, Westrich and Leeds have brought their A game and a palpable synergy has resulted from the collaboration. (Full disclosure is required here: McKeever is a co-host of a local television show alongside this critic.)
Clancy may not be Eugene O’Neill but he has crafted a strong script rife with irony. He ingeniously posits a world where time is a precious, fragile and tenuous commodity, yet a place where time has seemingly come to a halt out from fear what the next tick of the clock might bring. These men work hard not to be cognizant that they are fixing watches stolen from countrymen who have been murdered so that the timepieces can be worn by their killers.
Clancy has Benjamin say horology is “my life’s work,” a phrase that refers to both his obsession and what is keeping him from the gas chamber. Later, when Benjamin berates Hans for trading sexual favors for jam on bread, the Jew asks contemptuously, “How low can you crawl?” Hans yells back in shame at his pragmatism, “I have no idea!”
McKeever has played serious roles including a hoarding brother in his own play Stuff at the Caldwell Theatre Company. But his genial demeanor often gets him cast in light comic roles and audiences forget his range. This should change that for good. His Benjamin is someone whose emotions have been cauterized at the root of his humanity. It’s visible from his shuffling gait to his quavering voice to his eyes so studiously focused on his watches for fear of what he might see outside the workbench. For McKeever’s Benjamin, words are traps. Words are a bridge between people and such bridges can only lead to loss and pain. And pain he knows; it visibly sloshes inside McKeever like acid under pressure in a lab beaker.
Westrich is quickly becoming a reason to go see a show simply because he’s in it. While he earned kudos for Island City Stage’s The Twentieth Century Way (we weren’t as impressed with that show as most people), he truly scored in Outré Theatre Company’s tick…tick…BOOM and Slow Burn Theatre’s Avenue Q. While his Hans is unapologetically gay, he reins it in just short of a caricature. His flamboyance seems designed primarily to vex Benjamin. Westrich creates a three-dimensional human being who can barely conceal his fear but who is the braver of the two since he has yet to surrender his sense of humor or desire to make a human connection.
Stabile brings a bully’s swagger to the capo savoring his authority to bolster his own ego by dehumanizing the helpless.
The production values are atypically impressive for this tiny venue. Michael McClain’s setting is note perfect: a claustrophobic barracks the size of a dog run, backed by weather-worn slats with gaps large enough to let Preston Bircher’s lighting shine through. Especially unnerving is that the fourth wall between the play and the audience is comprised of strands of barbed wire encasing the action. The aforementioned sound design is by David Hart, partly responsible for the torrent of sounds in Leeds’ production of Last Call a year ago.
Some advice to patrons: First, this is being mounted in Empire Stage’s tiny theater and Island City has a strong following, so coming early is a good idea, as are reservations. Second, the show is 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission but with drinks and munchies available to bring into the theater. And there’s basically two restrooms. Plan accordingly.
The Timekeepers plays through Nov. 24 from Island City Stage at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale (north of Sunrise just east of the railroad tracks) 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $30. Call (954) 678-1496 or visit IslandCityStage.org