Dan Clancy’s The Timekeepers is a tiny, intimate play with tremendous heart and soaring human spirit. It reveals its theme, the universality of hope, through a survival relationship developed over time between two WWII concentration camp prisoners. One is a Jew, the other a homosexual. Theatre New West, under Joe Watts’ artistic directorship, presents Clancy’s 2006 off-Broadway success through June 22, in partnership with the Dallas Holocaust Museum’s Center for Education and Tolerance.
The Jewish genocide at the hands of the Nazis in WWII dominates most awareness with the enormity of its scale and the horror of its scope and execution. The Nazis persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and murdered other groups of “undesirables” as well, including homosexuals, who were treated with exceptional cruelty. According to statistics posted in Wikipedia, “between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested as homosexuals, of whom some 50,000 were officially sentenced. …Of those incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps, it is unclear how many eventually perished, but leading scholar Rüdiger Lautmann believes that the death rate of homosexuals in concentration camps may have been as high as 60 percent. (In 2002, the German government finally apologized to the gay community.)
In The Timekeepers, middle-aged Jewish prisoner Benjamin (Karl Lewis) shares proudly how he was considered the finest watch repairman in Berlin. Believing his value as a skilled tradesman gave him immunity, he failed to flee Germany with his family before Nazi occupation. Separated from his wife and children, he slaves in his grim, solitary cell repairing watches taken off bodies piled into gas chambers for SS officers to wear. A young prisoner gets thrown into the cell, someone who has claimed he also repairs watches. Hans (Jeremy W. Smith), an unabashed opportunist surviving by his wits and easy sexual “accommodation,” wears a telltale pink star and flaunts his “deviant” sexuality. He knows nothing about watches and wants desperately to learn so he can survive.
Benjamin finds Hans and his “lifestyle” disgusting and wants nothing to do with him. Playwright Clancy presents the men’s conflict in simple, human terms, without cliché or preaching. Both characters exhibit flaws and strengths, share humor and grief in tangible ways. The resulting performance has powerful impact and makes the case for tolerance and acceptance in a poignant, dignified manner.
Watts has used the limited, up close performance space at the Holocaust Museum to effective advantage, keeping the set and props minimal and directing his actors with light, naturalistic focus and no stage-y “effects.”
As Benjamin, Lewis offers no maudlin, stereotypical portrayal. He treads a fine line between worldly gruffness and genuine compassion for a fellow prisoner with grace and awareness. His transition from revulsion to acceptance emerges slowly and believably as he grows to know the young man upsetting the relatively safe calm of his existence. Hans must demonstrate a raw vulnerability underneath his cocky, con artist swagger and gay swish. Smith presents a Hans torn between the selfish reality he “creates” and the scared, lonely boy he protects inside. His posture and voice may be all smart-ass, but his eyes reveal deep-seated fear and anguish. The two men arrive at an uncommon understanding through fighting their common enemy, the cruel, unfeeling guard played by Eric Hanson, and through discovering a surprise, a shared love of opera.
At the play’s end, it’s made clear that survival is only a likely possibility for one man. But because of the strength of the trusting, respectful bond they have developed, neither man loses hope for the future. When Lewis and Smith offer a final hug as Benjamin and Hans, promising to meet at a performance of Puccini’s Tosca, “seats on the 10th row and don’t wear stripes,” they draw the audience along into believing in the transcendent possibility of their shared vision.
Viewed at preview, the production had not quite yet found its pacing. The actors gave every indication they would do so in subsequent performances. I understand a future production of The Timekeepers will take place later this year in a theatrical venue, where it will be easier to define a suspension of belief reality and explore the nuances of text and emotional range. I look forward to experiencing Theatre New West’s production again.
Deepest thanks to the Dallas Holocaust Museum Center for being willing to present a play portraying an overlooked aspect of the 20th century’s worst horror and disgrace. Thanks to them for supporting the entire human community, all of us looking for transcendent possibilities.
◊ A version of this review originally appeared on the author's blog, CriticalRant.com, which is a TheaterJones content partner.