Vincent D’Onofrio and Ethan Hawke in a scene from Clive
(Photo credit: Monique Carboni)
Bertolt Brecht’s 1923 shocker, his first staged play, Baal, was about a dissolute poet who went out of his way to break bourgeois German society’s rules. The point was that Brecht was mocking the romantic notion of poet as hero. Ninety years later, Jonathan Marc Sherman has retold the play (with music) as Clive now setting it in East Village, Upstate New York and Canada in the 1990’s. Brecht’s poet has become a dissolute rocker. Somewhere along the way the play’s message was lost and Clive is simply unpleasant, to put it mildly, degradation for degradation’s sake.
The New Group’s world premiere is directed by and features Ethan Hawke, as well as film star Vincent d’Onofrio, returning to the New York stage for his first extended run in 17 years since The Second Stage and Signature Theatre Company’s co-production of the revised version of Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime (Second Dance), also about a rock musician. Hawke and Sherman have previously worked together acting in Sherman’s Sophistry (1993), and again more recently in Chekhov’s Ivanov last fall. Hawke also directed The New Group’s production of Sherman’s play Things We Want whose cast also included Zoe Kazan who has the lead female roles in Clive. Despite the fact that these performers are obviously attuned to each other’s methods the play seems more than a little unfocused.
Clive follows the decline and fall of a platinum blond, self-involved, hedonistic rocker called Clive who drinks, fornicates, takes drugs, curses, insults, abandons his lovers and destroys his followers. Ultimately one of the other characters announces his epitaph, “A rat is dying in the gutter,” which completely describes the proceedings. Aside from his transgressions which eventually lead to rape and murder, Clive periodically sings well-known American songs as though giving a performance in a club. The production also includes original music and sound sculptures by Gaines. Using several of Brecht’s alienation techniques intended to distance the audience from the stage illusion, Clive’s characters often narrate their own actions, but to little purpose. Clive’s guitar-playing follower Doc (played by D’Onofrio) occasionally narrates or fills in a gap to suggest a passage of time. The other seven actors play between four and ten characters each in this episodic narrative which eventually seems like more and more of the same.
Described by Sherman as “a play in 21 shards based on inspired by stolen from Bertolt Brecht’s Baal,” the new play sticks very closely to the characters and plotting of the earlier play. The women’s names remain the same and where Baal declaimed poems, Clive sings songs to his guitar, as well as with combos of various sizes, often including Dana Lyn on violin or piano. Unfortunately, Clive does not hold up as a criticism of society as Brecht’s play was intended to be. Maybe we have seen too many self-destructive rock musicians to be affected by this story. Clive learns nothing from his experiences and neither do we.
Hawke’s low-key, off-hand performance as Clive doesn’t help, nor does the feeling that each scene repeats what we have already seen and heard. D’Onofrio sporting a shaved head and a handle-bar mustache appears to have a much better grasp on this type of theater, but as he appears so rarely and Doc’s character is mainly unexplained, he is unable to ground the proceedings. Playing a series of innocent young waifs ultimately destroyed by Clive, Kazan is in danger of being typecast and her mannerisms here are beginning to look like posturing. Playing ten roles, Brooks Ashmanskas is much in evidence but his characters disappear before we get to know them. Author Sherman is surprisingly quite pallid in several cameo appearances. Hawke’s direction makes Clive’s excesses more juvenile than shocking and the play fails to suggest original depravity, rather than the same old sins.
The set by Derek McLane is intentionally expressionistic: seven doors at different angles backed by a wall of silver beer cans and labels in various configurations. Since the play is already expressionistic, this fails to give much atmosphere, just speeds up the transitions between the 21 scenes. The costumes by Catherine Zuber look like they were bought at an East Village thrift shop which is entirely appropriate to the milieu. Jeff Croiter’s lighting changes for each scene and focuses attention without creating any memorable moments of its own, strange, since expressionistic theater has often been entirely created by lighting effects in the past.
While continuing in Brecht’s tradition of appropriating earlier literary and theatrical works to his own purposes, Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Clive is an ambitious but unsuccessful achievement. Ethan Hawke might have done better to have concentrated on developing his performance in the title role and left the direction of the mise en scène to someone else. While Brecht’s play is the better of the two, it is unlikely we will see a new production of Baal any time soon.
Clive (through March 9, 2013)
The New Group, The Acorn Theatre @ Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission