"Clive" is based on, inspired by, and stolen from the German version of Bertolt Brecht's "Baal" published in Potsdam in 1922. I worked from a literal translation courtesy of Google Translate. I do not recommend that you try this."
The quotation above, by the now self-confessed pseudo-plagiarist, Jonathan Marc Sherman, offers good advice for everyone. Do not try this. Vomiting drunken gibberish from any language into Google Translate could not churn out a more tedious dry heave of doggerel than "Clive," which is currently wasting everybody's time at Theatre Row.
At least since his death, Bertolt Brecht has held the distinction of having been a pretty decent playwright whose stuff is most often staged very badly. Usually this is because productions spend too much time trying to interpret what Brecht called "Epic Theatre," which, in a nutshell, means that audiences should always be aware they are watching a play, and not get too emotionally absorbed in the action. Lousy acting and shoddy direction tend to accomplish that, but German words like "Verfremdungseffekt" make it all sound more academic.
Sadly, the New Group doesn't have this excuse with "Clive," as its source material was written well before Brecht developed such philosophy. They've only put on a heckler's wet dream of a bad show.
Ethan Hawke stars as the title character, a charmless and vapid poseur who shows us what it looks like when the bohemian spring of a Union Square youth ages into the autumn haze of Penn Station indigence. Hawke's Scandinavian-goes-as-Sid Vicious-for-Halloween look is an arresting but odd choice, given that he portrays a musician devoted to acoustic guitar and songs inspired by old folk melodies like "Aura Lee."
To his credit, Hawke's renditions are more than passable for anyone who likes that raspy, unpolished sound. His energy and drive never let up either, and he really puts his shoulder to it. Of course, the same was true of Casey Jones, and he also wound up behind the wheel of a train wreck.
Simply put, the character utterly fails to win any investment of consideration whatsoever from the audience. Brecht's goal of alienation is achieved, but not in the "watch me speak German" kind of way. Clive possesses nothing to justify the affections he receives from other characters, and the other characters pretty much get what they deserve for choosing to fall in with him.
The original "Baal" sought to portray an irredeemable scumbag yes, but one that possessed a kind of nobility in living outside the confines of bourgeois society. "Clive," by contrast, bothers not with raising a fist against the wider world, but instead insulates a group of young(ish) narcissists in tight pants getting 22 ways of wasted in New York. Honestly, to modern sensibilities, what's more bourgeois than that?
As director, Hawke is better at creating a flow. Scenes begin and end in smooth transitions. It's the stuff in between that's the problem. He has also taken the liberty of staging stroking, groping makeout sessions between himself and every comely and nearly naked woman in the play. The creep factor oozes over the footlights with such thickness (where's an alienation effect when you need one?), you get the feeling that if he weren't Ethan Hawke, he'd be casting American Apparel ads via Craigslist.
Playwright Sherman (or whatever this play makes him) also appears in several roles, but with no illuminating breakthrough. It's rather like the rest of the cast confronted him on day one and said, "If we have to spout this nonsense, then you have to get up here and do it, too." Everyone else is a friend of Hawke and Sherman, or perhaps former friends by the time this thing is over.
Stage directions are vocalized more often than not, either to free the actor from doing anything convincing ("tears stream down my face") or patently impossible (the hulking Vincent D'Onofrio expostulates at some point that the milk-fed Clive "wrestles me to the ground."). Everyone involved is a clearly gifted and accomplished performer, but it's doubtful this will make it into his or her next playbill bio.
Speaking of the playbill, that's actually the most revelatory text associated with this production. Seventeen of the 23 members of the New Group's Board of Directors have anointed themselves "visionaries" by donating at least $20,000 each to the company's programming. For the record, there are only 22 listed "visionaries" (the Board Treasurer only ponied up something in the $10,000 range, which makes him more far-sighted, literally by half, than the visionaries at the moment).
As with most organizations, board members are often selected based on their access to deep pockets, so this isn't surprising. But one of those deep pockets belongs to us. The National Endowment for the Arts, as well as state and local subsidies, supported this exercise in very petty artistic larceny.
Before the reflex to shout "philistine" deafens us all, just ask whether there might be any other, possibly less-glamorous companies in town who could have used those public funds to put on a good production of "Baal"? And is it too much to ask that the next time the rich and famous want us to look at their middle fingers, they at least do it completely on their own dime?
As it stands now, it's not only Brecht who's getting ripped off.
"Clive" runs through March 9 at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. For tickets and info, call 212-230-6200 or visit www.thenewgroup.org.