One Hand Clapping
59E59 Theaters 59 E. 59th Street
According to One Hand Clapping, an imported British stage version of a 1961 Anthony Burgess novel adapted and directed by Lucia Cox, if you try to imagine one hand clapping you can come closer to the concept of God; this would seem to link God to nothingness, which is a Zen sort of thought. Burgess published his novel originally under the pseudonym Joseph Kell, and he meant it as a rant against the transformation of Britain, as he saw it, into a “mini-America.” So his viewpoint seems to be that of an angry, reactionary young man, and if so this is unusual because most of the angry young men and women plays of this time in England came from a more leftist perspective.
The play is narrated by Janet Shirley (Eve Burley), a cheerful blond who works stacking cans of food in a grocery store. She tells us very briefly of her courtship and then her marriage with Howard (Oliver Devoti), who has a job selling used cars. Howard has the fearfully deadpan look of a man always struggling to control his feelings of despair; he also has a photographic memory, so he goes on a quiz show after reading through some books on English literature, and he wins prize after prize. Just to show off, it seems, he uses the real name of novelist Ford Madox Ford, which was Ford Hueffer, in one of his answers, and this causes a brief uproar until it is looked up and he is vindicated.
Howard orders Janet to give up her job, which she likes, and he takes her on a trip to America while subsidizing the shady poet Redvers Glass (Adam Urey). As they tour the United States, Janet and Howard get their fill of material goods and come back exhausted and at very loose ends. Janet has had an affair with Glass, though this is only sketched in very briefly, and finally there comes a point when that ticking time bomb look on Oliver’s face reaches its climactic point. Up until then, One Hand Clapping has been a somewhat creaky but engrossing piece of material that depends on the excellent acting of its cast, but when suicide pacts and murder and macabre plot developments come into view toward the end, the play falls apart, particularly in the characterization of Janet, who goes from being not very bright and afraid of burning in hell to a super-sharp manipulator and a woman of evil.
Burgess’s point seems to be that money and freedom from work has made Janet into a kind of monster, but if so the change comes too swiftly to be believable. There are a lot of parody commercials from the late 1950s and early 1960s playing on small television sets here to push Burgess’s theme home, and Janet often stops to extoll the virtues of various products like a commercial pitchwoman of that time, but such attacks on consumerism finally feel vague and dated.