A Sign of the Times: Show Review by Jo Mispel

(photo by Russ Rowland)

Time. How does our relationship to it change our understanding of, and ability to process, loss? How do we find agency for meaningful action when collective forces seem to hold us in an overwhelmed inertia? Can a philosophizing ex Physics teacher, standing on a crossroad directing traffic with his handheld slow/stop paddle, work through the limbo that grief, both personal and collective, has caught him in?

The wonderful Javier Munoz (Hamilton, In the Heights) plays the unnamed ‘man’ in a skillful 95 minute monologue exploring these ideas and feelings in the new play A Sign of the Times, directed by Stephen Lloyd Helper, and now showing at Theater 511.

Javier Munoz, as the ‘Man’, will take us through a daydreaming odyssey during which he will share his eclectic learnings, experiences and contemplations in an attempt to find meaning after his inexplicable loss. He tells us early that he has deliberately simplified his life for this reason. He takes a job as a traffic controller at a remote development site. He knows he needs to slow down, look for answers and ask new questions. He quotes poetry and refers to physics, mythology and history. He considers fate, faith, and responsibility. We as an audience will serve as his muse, witness and fellow passengers.

His favorite object is his only tool, a traffic sign. Slow. Stop. Stop. Slow.  He calls it Fred. He enjoys getting to choose and direct who will pass – the simple binary of it. It appeals to his need for answers, for formulas. He is like Chiron at the crossroads, he muses, or like a boson particle whose only job it seems, at a subatomic level, is to guide other particles to the correct place. But he also intuits he needs some kind of initiation – that there is some kind of crossing he himself will need to make, to function again fully after his great loss.

Javier Munoz is such a great actor, he makes the small theater space intimate. He swings the mood from comedic to tragic and everything in between. His warmth and depth make us want to lean forward and hold the space open for his meander through references and memories. He speaks to us directly. We witnessed him seemlessly integrate an audience member’s ringing mobile into the narrative without a hitch.

The stage set is bare but for Javier, Fred (his sign) and an icebox. A video projection, designed by Kristen Ferguson, is lightly used for atmosphere. When we were initially settling into the theater it showed time related images and equations, accompanied by a motley medley of classic songs that all referenced time. The space though, is mostly evoked through David Van Tieghem’s sound design.  Sounds and voices, both insitu and from the past, create the play’s environmental and mental landscapes.

We accompany our storyteller, steward him gently, as he wanders through his purgatory, discharging his story, seeing it’s patterns. He will joke and ponder but seems to forever return to a place of confusion and hurt, letting slip accreting layers of detail about the personal loss that has brought him here.

The voice of his wife Hilda, who has now left him, often returns, asking, ‘When are you coming home?”. She wanted him to stay with her as a partner in the agony of loss. But he could not. He wants time to stop, or reverse. He wants Einstein’s theories to reassure him that time is not linear.

We learn that Hilda finally leaves him, after a night out drinking with his best friend Toby. A friend whose joy of literature matches his own. A night out together always a guarantee of the quip and riposte kind of banter where time lets go of its grip.  As Toby’s companion in the endless fluid fueled containment of the local bar he feels fully charged, lost and gloriously removed from the inexplicable tragedy of his life. Here was a place of lost time, where the two of them feel beholden to nothing but free floating gestures. He so wants to rise above the mess, or so it seems, just when his family most needs him to descend into it.

Can he pass through his grief to the other side, which isn’t really another side but an in-between, a neither/nor? His Fred, his lollipop sign, delivers to him a revelation. There is a thin edge between the slow and stop, his love and loss. These things are not a dichotomy, they are more like an entanglement.

I have been thinking a lot of late, as no doubt most of us have, about time, action, and the very peculiar times we are currently traversing through. I appreciated the broad stroke questions this play proffered. Here was a man retreating from the speed of day to day life, trying to find answers. A human being trying to find a way forward amid the chaos and uncertainty. His is a very personal tragedy but Stephen Lloyd Helper’s writing also manages to extrapolate this out to a larger social context.. He touches on the weariness that makes us complacent. The ‘Man” notes helplessly the destruction of forests proceeding around him, while he dutifully does his job. “Here we are an audience of our own life, watching each other watch each other. A collective force of inertia”

My only criticism might be that the rush of revolving ideas and revelations was a little breathless. We never feel far removed from the mediating comfort of intellect and dialogue. We never feel obliged to sit in silence with the pain as Hilda would like her husband to. It felt a bit speedy, like the world we would re-enter as we departed the theater. But perhaps this too is appropriate for a piece about a man contemplating the arc of his life. And this man so generously galvanizes us with his new found wisdom before we leave: ‘The strength of my grief is the force of my love.” Yes. Doing nothing is not enough. Our times need us to channel our grief through our love, and act accordingly.


The Sign of the Times now showing at Theater 511 – 511 W. 54th St, NY, 10019

Limited engagement: February 17th to April 4th.

Playwright and Director: Stephen Lloyd Helper.
Lighting Designer: Caitlin Rapoport.
Costume Designer: Soule Golden.
Sound Designer and Composer: David Van Tieghem.
Projection Designer: Kristen Ferguson.

Visit A SIGN OF THE TIMES starring Javier Muñoz







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