By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: February 7, 2013
PHOTO CREDIT: SARA KRULWICH
Ethan Hawke has been dying a lot in recent months. Having taken on the depressive, suicidal title character of Chekhov’s “Ivanov” late last year, he is now portraying another existentially challenged, terminal case in “Clive,” Jonathan Marc Sherman’s latter-day variation on Brecht’s “Baal.” While there are big differences — it is now Brecht instead of Chekhov, after all — the road to the grave, as mapped by Mr. Hawke, feels much the same: fretful, feverish and, ultimately, fatiguing.
Mr. Hawke deserves props for being a movie star who regularly ventures onto terrain where Broadway angels fear to tread. “Ivanov” and “Clive” are both early works from challenging dramatists that are notoriously difficult to get right. While Mr. Hawke’s characters are the unconditional centers of their plays, they are also anything but easy to love.
What’s more, he does not take the star’s prerogative of dominating the proceedings.“Ivanov,” staged by Austin Pendleton for the Classic Stage Company, and “Clive,” which opened on Thursday night at the Acorn Theater in a New Group production, are very much ensemble efforts. So I regret to say that neither show has been all that well served by its leading man or for that matter by its director, who in the case of “Clive” happens to be Mr. Hawke.
A decade or so ago Mr. Hawke, now 42, a writer as well as an actor, would have seemed a natural to play Baal. Written by Brecht in 1918, when he was only 20 and filled with contempt for the German theater of his day, “Baal” is an angry young man’s play about an angry, unwashed young artist of charismatic talent and equally magnetic destructiveness. He’s a grubby, convention-smashing outlaw poet (or poète maudit) in the great Gallic tradition of François Villon and Arthur Rimbaud.
Structured in fatalistic fragments that bring to mind Büchner’s “Woyzeck,” “Baal” courses with the sap of early manhood, when pleasure is an end in itself, and life seems both beautiful and damned. Though its portrait of a polymorphously perverse antihero (who would happily have sex with a tree) is unlikely to shock audiences today as it did in the 1920s, “Baal” still has the potential to electrify.
The current that flows through “Clive” is oddly sluggish, though, and it only rarely gives off sparks. Set in the 1990s by Mr. Sherman (“Sophistry,” “Things We Want”), Brecht’s tale of a degenerate society assumes the air of a wearily confirmed prophecy acted out in a world where everyone has by now been there, done that. And as embodied by Mr. Hawke with spiked iridescent gray hair and an expression of eternal tiredness, Clive (as Baal has been rechristened) comes across less as a satanic catalyst than just another rotten apple on a dying tree.
Mr. Sherman — who is also part of the acting ensemble, along with Vincent D’Onofrio and Zoe Kazan — has stuck close to the form and content of Brecht’s text. Of course the locale is now Giuliani’s New York instead of Augsburg, Germany, around 1911, which involves certain changes of detail. Mood-altering powders are now ingested as well as high-proof brandy; a lumberjack’s camp has been transformed into a shooting gallery; and Clive is a promising singer who performs in downtown dives instead of the oral poet of the docks that Baal was.
This means that there’s a fair amount of music in “Clive,” including a few bleak American ballads about heaven and hell (performed by Mr. Hawke in the vein of an exhausted, midcareer Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen), some snatches from the Brecht-Weill “Alabama Song” and, most ingeniously, musical doors. You heard right. Each of the free-standing doors in Derek McLane’s set has been equipped (via the sound design of Gaines) with hammers, bars and strings that allow the performers to summon tunes from them.
But if it’s not impolite to ask: Why? Are we to infer that the capacity to elicit the music of the spheres lies not just in Clive but also in everyone? In that case why are other characters so keen on signing Clive to record contracts or nightclub gigs, especially given Mr. Hawke’s rather lackluster musical performances?
There’s an argument to be made that “Baal” is as much a picture of an inhuman society as of a monstrous individual. Mr. Sherman has saidthat in translating “Baal” to the late 20th century he was struck by “how little people mistreating people has changed.” And Mr. Hawke has spoken of the “despicable” nature of everyone in the play, all propelled by “an id at work.”
But if you carry this point of view to its ultimate leveling conclusion Clive’s story is stripped of conflict. It’s hard to get worked up as Clive seduces, abandons and destroys an assortment of friends, lovers and strangers. Finding a compelling dramatic tension in Brecht, whose goal even then was to keep his audiences at a thoughtful distance, is never easy. But there should be energy at least in the execution, in the sly creation and subversion of illusions.
The cast members — who also include Brooks Ashmanskas, Stephanie Janssen, Mahira Kakkar, Aaron Krohn and Dana Lyn — do appear to be enjoying themselves, incarnating various lost souls and speaking their own stage directions in character (an interpolation by Mr. Sherman). And Ms. Kazan, for one, makes you share that pleasure as she seems to draw instant Etch A Sketch cartoons of women done wrong by the rapacious Clive. (She is helped by Catherine Zuber’s amusing virgin-vamp costumes.)
Mr. Hawke, who was excessively agitated as Ivanov, plays Clive in a more minor, subdued key, which is a surprising choice for a character meant to be an irresistible force. What magnetism there is in this production is generated by Mr. D’Onofrio, one of the great wild-card actors of his generation. (Even if you’ve seen him only as the troubled Detective Goren on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” you’ll know what I mean.)
Speaking, for some reason, in a down-home Southern accent, Mr. D’Onofrio portrays the rough-hewed, hedonistic Doc (Eckart in “Baal”), Clive’s best friend and probably his lover. Even delivering annotative lines like “They exit,” Mr. D’Onofrio exudes a gleeful, dangerous heat.
When he yells to Clive to come out and play in the dark, dark woods, it’s the call of the wild. It’s a sound that also fleetingly raises the pulse of a show that is, for the most part, strictly flatline.