Ethan Hawke -- who directed and plays the title character in Jonathan Marc Sherman's Clive at the New Group's Acorn home -- begins by singing Doc Watson's "You Must Come In at the Door." He staccatos the folk-y threnody as if he were Tom Waits, and the rendition couldn't be more intriguing.
Moreover, it's a promising beginning not only for the song and the delivery (Hawke's on guitar, too) but because the "door" motif obviously dictated Derek McLane's commanding set which features seven free-standing weather-beaten doors. Beside those, there's a fringe of tinsel-like stalactites hanging over the stage where much of the action takes place in a grey conversation pit.
All to the good, so far, but that's where the not-so-good seeps into a script that Sherman has adapted from Bertolt Brecht's rarely-seen Baal, a series of scenes depicting the downfall of a benighted poet. Sherman's idea is to update the proceedings and turn the eponymous Baal into rock troubadour Clive running amok in brutal Brechtian strokes.
The free-falling Clive and sidekick Doc (Vincent D'Onofrio, with head shaved and feeling free to embroider on his disturbed Law & Order: Criminal Intent detective, Robert "Bobby" Goren) pass through several sequences that relentlessly involve life's down-trodden.
Having sung his song, Clive immediately antagonizes an entertainment executive (the more-than-ready Brooks Ashmanskas in the first of many roles), who unceremoniously tears up a lucrative contract in Clive's face. Whereupon, Clive comes into increasingly less rewarding contact with sharp operators, women of varying low degrees, a murder, an insane asylum, you-name-it-if-it's-depressing-and/or-anarchic.
The problem with Sherman's version -- perhaps with Brecht's as well -- is that there's no momentum to the succession of scenes. Rather, they merely become repetitive and pointlessly nihilistic. Worse, the accumulation of seedy locales serves as encouragement for Hawke, D'Onofrio, Ashmanskas and six others (the usually superb Zoe Kazan, among them) to wallow not in characters but in caricatures.
This is particularly disturbing with Hawke, normally one of the City's most accomplished stage figures. His recent appearance as the title malcontent in Anton Chekhov's Ivanov at CSC is one example of his powers. Another, his New Group Hurlyburly turn in 2005 was arguably the best performance by an actor that year. Possibly, as director this time, he couldn't see clearly enough what his leading man was doing.
Brecht, born in 1898, wrote Baal in 1918 when he was 20, though it wasn't produced until 1923. It's a young man's play -- the determinedly grim view of the world (not necessarily something the playwright ever completely abandoned) not surprising. Young men are habitually gratified at announcing to their elders how dreadful the world is, and in Germany's post-war period, Brecht had much to go on.
On the other hand, Sherman -- who was discovered via Woman & Wallace, written when he was 19 -- is no longer a kid, and this sort of pretentiously sophomoric material, possibly excusable in a young aspirant, is unbecoming in a playwright approaching middle age. The world of Sherman's play -- a program note says enigmatically "The 1990s, but you can also hear the future & the past" -- seems to emerge from nothing so much as a need for Sherman to pass himself off as important.
On the way out of the theater after the 90-minute, no-break piece, one dissatisfied customer was heard to remark, "If there'd been an intermission, no one would have come back." That about sums it up