Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Clive, inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s 1918 work Baal, mainly demonstrates that unplayable works don’t get any more accessible even when updated to modern times. Starring Ethan Hawke as a dissipated rock musician on a fast track to self-destruction, this amorphous drama severely tries one’s patience even as it wastes the talents of an estimable cast that also includes Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) and Vincent D’Onofrio.
Reset to 1990's New York City, the play follows the basic structure of Brecht’s original play, which is rarely performed these days for a reason. Its choppy, episodic narrative quickly proves repetitive, making the same tired points over and over.
Sporting spiky silver hair, Hawke’s narcissistic singer/songwriter Clive is clearly a basket case, addicted to any number of substances and abusing every woman who comes into his path. Whether snorting cocaine off one of his female conquest’s breasts or hosting a sadistic version of Truth or Dare, he’s a thoroughly repellant character whose eventual downfall fails to spark interest.
Sherman’s adaptation, dubbed “a play in 21 shards,” is indeed jagged in its elliptical style. Running a seemingly interminable 105 minutes, it depicts the title character’s nihilistic interactions with a variety of seedy characters. Among them is Joanne (Kazan), his friend’s virginal 17-year-old fiancée who he cruelly seduces and then promptly discards with tragic consequences, and his best friend Doc (D’Onofrio), who both observes and is complicit in Clive’s wanton behavior. Eventually he too becomes a victim, stabbed to death by Clive in a fit of drunken violence.
As with Brecht’s original piece, several songs are interpolated into the proceedings, most amusingly "The Alabama Song" (from the playwright’s operatic collaboration with Kurt Weill, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), sung by Hawke in his singularly raspy voice. Adding to the exotic atmosphere is the original music and sound design created by the art duo GAINES, which has the actors making impromptu music using elements of the set.
The piece’s expressionistic style is heightened by such scenes as when Clive and cohorts gather around the corpse of a dead junkie while wearing masks, sunglasses and fedoras. Other out-there elements include Doc’s propensity for barking like a dog and his eventual ascent into heaven with a pair of angel’s wings strapped to his back.
Hawke, who also directed, delivers an intense, admirably committed performance that nonetheless fails to make much of an impact. D’Onofrio, making a too rare NYC stage appearance, is impressively fearsome in his physicality, with his bald pate and extra poundage recalling his psychotic young soldier in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The waif-like Kazan is movingly fragile as the doomed Joanne, while playwright Sherman and Brooks Ashmanskas ably fulfill a variety of supporting roles.
But eventually the production proves to have little reason for being, failing to provide an emotionally resonant modern-day version of its admittedly difficult source material. It mainly comes across as an actors' exercise, one that is undoubtedly more fulfilling for its creatives than for the beleaguered audience.