‘Based on,’ ‘inspired by,’ and ‘stolen from’ are strange pretenses to maintain when Clive, a production by the New Group currently showing at the Acorn Theater, is, save for a handful of missing lines, missing songs and a sore-thumb effort to recontextualize the play from 1910s Germany to modern-day New York City by crying “borough” as if it were an uproarious punchline, Brecht’s notorious first outing, Baal. The artwork for Clive acknowledges as much by way of the playful nods above but couches the relationship as an adaptation, attaching a new author’s name to the piece – retold by Jonathan Marc Sherman. Well, nevermind that nonsense: Clive is Baal starring and directed by Ethan Hawke. Grasp that unlikely pairing; then consider whether you would enjoy passing an evening subject to an alchemical spectacle cooked up between the two.
Gold, it is not, but neither is it lead. And, surprisingly, Ethan Hawke shines more brightly than the text, a disjointed, decidedly adolescent piece of writing from the then-twenty-year-old Brecht. In Baal, a dissolute young poet drinks, sleeps, lies, and murders his way through turn-of-the-century Germany with the dreamy languor of a sprite. In Clive, an aging would-be rockstar does all the same things with an equally robust sense of guilt. Clive and Baal, the title characters themselves, toe a perverted line between sociopath and utterly liberated spirit, riffing innocently on the delirious scent of wind, commenting not so innocently on the aphrodisiacal quality of trees, seducing innocents, and, later, murdering an innocent.
So that’s the show, the creative spirit unfettered by conscience or society sucking at the bone of pleasure for a gritty drop of marrow. What have Ethan Hawke and the New Group done with all this volatile material? They have set it in 1990s NYC. They have staged it in a bar, the back wall of which is made of pressed beer cans; several free-standing doors surround the stage, each fitted with strings and hammers, xylophone-like instruments, which characters pluck, it seems, on a whim (sound sculptures courtesy of GAINES). They have dressed their Baal up like Dave Navarro crowned with Billy Idol’s unfortunate hair. They have made him look ridiculous.
Yet he’s the least ridiculous part of the show. His mania is manic, his sodden depression wretched. When he’s in a fog, it’s not clear what he’s talking about; when in the bedroom, he’s the only one who knows exactly what he wants and says exactly what he means. This carnival madman feels like a dangerously unhinged person, not like a cartoonish impression of one, and that clarity is thanks to Ethan Hawke’s steady, subdued performance. By approaching Clive as if he were real – not a symbol, not a force, but a man – he convinces us that someone like this could in fact be real.
Bizarrely, Clive’s even-handed if equally drunken best-friend Doc – played by the usually subtle and spot-on Vincent D’Onofrio – comes off barking mad. Mr. D’Onofrio employs a Dixie accent that refuses to rise to meet his intentions for it. He struts, sometimes, when there is nothing to strut about. He roars – more than once. This does confer onto him (more than any of the other players) the quality of unpredictability, something Doc himself – a restless wanderer of unpeopled wilds – is covetous of, but it throws the credibility of the realistically drawn Clive into question. If D’Onofrio’s outrageousness more accurately embodies the spirit of the show, does that mean that Hawke’s performance, while more enjoyable to watch, is intellectually vapid in comparison? Is the show more than a mere retelling of Baal, a genuine reimagining in which the jarring unreality of the characters is pitted against our sense of normalcy?
An insert in the playbill, apparently penned by assistant NYU drama professor, Cobina Gillitt, ends; ‘The choices taken and those not taken in Clive lead to questions. It’s up to you to discover the questions and to answer them. There is nothing ‘normal’ here. There is nothing that could not have been different. There is no perscription. [sic] No one’s going to tell you what’s right or what’s wrong.” A prescient observation. Certainly some things are right and others aren’t, but what’s what is pointless guess at: the text resists deconstruction by its flippancy, and the production walks a gauntlet, head down, between an exploration of hungered pleasure-seeking and a self-parodying introspection. Clive, like its namesake, might be an otherworldly dreamer possessed of depths so dark its trench seems shallow, but if there’s a 50-50 chance the undertaking is blithely sociopathic, is it courageous or reckless to dive in?