Matt Sax in Clay
(© Michael Brosilow)
Matt Sax in Clay
(© Michael Brosilow)
Just as Center Theater Group has previously spotlighted the careers of monologists Lily Tomlin and Anna Deavere Smith, they're now providing a springboard for Matt Sax. In his masterful one-man musical Clay at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Sax melds a story any theatergoer can relate to with the sounds of rap music. The effect of this singular work -- first seen at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre in 2006 -- is both startling and moving.

The story centers on Clifford, a displaced child begging to find his voice in a chaotic world. During Clay, Sax takes on the forms of several diverse characters from Clifford's hare-lipped promoter, Sir John, to his weaselly father, sexually confused stepmother, and suicidal mother. Each character's voice, body language, and aura is precise. Indeed, Sax has the mimicry talents of superstars Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams.

Clifford's struggles begin during adolescence, when he is forced to make the traumatic choice of which parent will raise him. He picks his father, a cold man obsessed with work who uses manipulation and abuse to get his way. Both Clifford and his scattered mother later regret the decision. As a teen, Clifford runs to Brooklyn to discover himself. There, he meets rap artist Sir John, and through his mentor's teachings, Clifford becomes a man -- and a performer named Clay, who rises through the ranks to become a star. Like the best dramatists, Sax illustrates the creative process. We watch as teacher and protégé dig through life experiences, molding pain and tragedy into a work of art.

Sax's musical performances illustrate the raw hunger in rap, yet the edges are smoothed over to make the music more palatable to neophytes. His lyrics are clearly spoken, but still create a response. Sax reveals all the ugliness in the current American family, from abuse to incest to a lust for patricide. (Additional music is by Jon Schmidt and Johnny Williams.)

He is aided in his task by director Eric Rosen, who uses pumping lights and minimal costume changes to optimal effect. Designer Walt Spangler has sparsely set the stage, giving a visual design of emptiness to match Clifford's despair, while Howell Binkley's lighting design thrusts the audience to the forefront of the stage.

In the end, Clay will have audiences evaluating how their own actions affect their children's maturation -- as well as looking forward to Sax's next work.