The bizarre road sign of a title heralds two short memory plays by Arthur Miller that suggest contrasting ways of dealing with the past: you simply forget what happened, or else you select what you remember.
The plays date from 1987, when they received mixed and baffled reviews in New York and a much kinder reception here in London, at Hampstead Theatre. Both are uncharacteristically opaque for Miller, but they do have a “late experimental” feel that chimed with the way he had recently compiled his extraordinary autobiography, Timebends.
In the first, I Can’t Remember Anything, two old friends, Leo (David Burke) and Leonora (Burke’s wife, Anna Calder-Marshall), discuss the retreating past in the light of the hazy present.
He is a retired engineer who is donating his organs to medical research: his brains for sweetbreads, he says, his liver with onions. She was married to his close friend for forty-five years. Her son is getting divorced, but she can’t remember from whom. They play a recording of an old-fashioned samba and shimmy around each other.
It’s an odd, unsatisfactory piece, and the way it’s played in Ed Viney’s production (which is deftly designed by Anna Finch) leaves you wondering how much is accidentally moving through the senility of the characters, how much in what they actually say. Maybe that’s the point. Burke’s Leo is frail and remote, while Calder-Marshall still seethes with signs of bubbling, mischievous vitality.
The orthodox critical view is that the second play, Clara, is the more skilled and interesting. I’m not sure about that. It’s certainly more complex, as a Jewish detective, Fine (Roger Sloman) interrogates another, but shadier, engineer, Albert Kroll (Rolf Saxon) about the murder of his daughter.
Clara herself (Laura Pyper) appears in flashback carrying her awkwardly symbolic caged budgerigar until pressed into a revelatory duologue with her father. She has worked with prisoners in a rehabilitation unit, and the mystery of her murder is related directly to that but also, somehow, to her father’s act of anti-racist heroism in a training camp in the war.
Again, there’s an unsatisfactory element of obfuscation that even the sharp acting of Sloman and Saxon cannot dispel. Miller is writing from somewhere deep within himself but does not, unlike Tennessee Williams in his later, more fragmented short plays, release the genie from the bottle. He probably heeded his own road sign too literally.