Set in Los Angeles in the early 1990’s, the two central characters in Jones and Hiltzik’s new collaborative project are separated in age by nearly forty years, and come to encounter each other with pasts and experiences glaringly lacking in commonality. Sam, a thirtysomething Caucasian, is a professional piano tutor who has so far in his life seen moderate success and prosperity. The play begins with Sam (played by Max Roll) sitting at his personal grand piano, awaiting the arrival of his newest student, the title-referenced Clarence. Clarence, played by Broadway alum DeMone, is a retired African-American septuagenarian that is undoubtedly set in his ways.
Much to Sam’s chagrin, Clarence turns out to be quite the handful as a student. DeMone’s interpretation of Clarence is that of an impatient and boisterous man, one who would probably prefer to gloss over the fundamentals of learning the piano if it meant that he could simply skip to playing tunes. His driving motivation is to learn the piano for his wife, and–despite his impatience–his focus is singular. DeMone’s larger-than-life persona is clear from the start, and the actor’s prodigiously charismatic personality is ever-present throughout the entire production.
Clarence’s character is written in stark contrast to that of Roll’s Sam, who is innately opposite of Clarence in every way. Disciplined, contained, studious, and entitled, Roll keenly plays against DeMone’s acting choices and physicality, making their differences all the more conspicuous.
To call About Clarence and Me simply a play is misleading, as the project features an entirely original score by co-writer Scott Hiltzik. A classical musician, Hiltzik’s music is technically striking but carries a modern flare. In additional to their finely tuned performances, both DeMone and Roll impress as musicians as well. Roll proves himself to be quite the accomplished classical pianist, demonstrating mastery of the keys by way of precision and constraint. DeMone, ever his opposite, produces from the piano a sound descendent of a ragtime piano roll, at times accompanied by the veteran singer’s sonorous growl. Directed by Hiltzik’s co-writer Jones, the duo’s intimacy with the material is plain to see in the final product. Full of nuanced moments both thematically and in performance, the writing team’s hands-on approach is responsible for this well-rounded and solid production.
Performed as a part of Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival, the gritty backdrop of New City’s Community Theater is a fitting backdrop for the racial and generational issues explored therein. Supported by the excellent performances from the show’s co-protagonists, About Clarence and Me is an impressive and creative outing from Hiltzik and Jones that should certainly make its way back to New York City following the conclusion of the Dream Up Festival.
About Clarence and Me (August 28 – September 6, 2016)
Theater for the New City’s Seventh Annual Dream Up Festival
in association with Infinite Intel Productions
The Community Theater at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.dreamupfestival.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with one intermission