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A Sign of the Times

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 27, 2020

Javier Muñoz
Photo by Russ Rowland
Stephen Lloyd Helper's metaphysical monolog of a play, A Sign of the Times, opening tonight at Theater 511 at Ars Nova, is most fortunate in having Javier Muñoz on deck as solo performer. Muñoz is a skillful and charming actor who has graced the Broadway stage as Usnavi in In the Heights and as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton. He knows how to keep an audience engaged. And for the first hour or so, until the play inexplicably loses its compass, he draws us deeply into the story of a man who is desperate to find solace within a mindless, repetitive job that allows him breathing space following a tragic loss.

As we come to know the character, identified only as "Man" in the program, we soon understand why he has left a career as a physics professor and taken on a position at a construction site, holding up a sign with the word "Stop" on one side and "Slow" on the other. There is little that the job requires of him other than to keep traffic moving along, which gives him plenty of time to reflect on the downward spiral of his life. "After all," he says, as if pointing out the obvious, "I am wearing reflective gear."

And reflect he does, not only on the events that led to his current state, but also on his former, now abandoned view of the universe as predictable and controllable through an understanding both of science (Einstein is his idol) and from the collective wisdom of philosophers and poets, including Robert Frost, Alexander Pope and, especially, Shakespeare, whom he quotes at several points during the show. The result, at least in the first hour, is a kind of interplay between realism and magical thinking, humor and heartbreak. There is even a logical ending place that very well could mark the finish of the play. But doesn't.

Abruptly, the tone and style and content shift into a 30-minute coda in the form of a rambling stream of consciousness catch-all that, perhaps, is meant to indicate a complete psychological/emotional breakdown of the character but which is all but incomprehensible within the context of what has come before. We have entered into another realm altogether, a headlong dive into what seems to be a gloss on the ancient Greek notions of love (agape, philios, eros), along with a side trip into a darkly puzzling combination of Jonathan Edwards's eighteenth century sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and a trip into Dante's "Inferno." Man's life is hell??? If that's the point, it's quite a metaphor, and a difficult and confusing one to sit through.

A Sign of the Times is, as you might imagine, a lot to take in. It is an unabashedly brazen effort by a playwright (who also directs) with a lot of ideas to explore but who hasn't been able to figure out how to convey these to an audience who, generally, are not enrolled in an undergraduate humanities course. If they were, the reading list might include (in addition to the aforementioned), Shaw's Don Juan in Hell, Nick Payne's Constellations, Simon Stephens's Sea Wall, and something from Samuel Beckett, perhaps his novel "The Unnamable" that famously ends with the appropriately existential lines: "You must go on. I can't go on. You must go on. I'll go on."

For what it's worth, the production is nicely supported by Caitlin Smith Rapoport's lighting design, David Van Tieghem's sound design and underscoring, and Kristen Ferguson's sometimes realistic, sometimes hallucinatory projections. And there, throughout it all, is Javier Muñoz, bravely handling logic and illogic with great aplomb through to the final blackout.

A Sign of the Times
Through April 4, 2020
Theater 511, 511 West 54th St. at 10th Avenue, New York
Tickets online and current performance schedule: