Bertolt Brecht's Baal, with its bleak portrait of a dissolute poet who shows a complete disregard for the rules of civilized society, shocked audiences at its premiere nearly 90 years ago. But if you need any proof of just how much times have changed, consider Clive, now being presented by The New Group at Theatre Row. This 105-minute intermission-less update of Brecht's play by Jonathan Marc Sherman is far more likely to elicit yawns than jolts.
From the moment we first meet him, rock-singer Clive (played by a silver-haired Ethan Hawke) is an alcoholic, self-absorbed, and highly destructive mess. Ultimately, he mistreats, manhandles – or even murders – anyone who tries to help him, befriend him, or love him. Some may be seduced by his unabashed sexuality, others by his free spirit, and a few lonely individuals simply by his access to alcohol and drugs – but all of this seems very passé in 2013. (The show, for some reason, is set in the 1990s, but that is not made completely clear, nor does it have much relevance.)
Moreover, Clive is such an unpleasant and often-abusive person that it's hard to see why he inspires any sort of lasting devotion or loyalty. Fortunately, Hawke brings total commitment to the role, baring Clive's inner and outer ugliness with the same ease (and frequency) as he bares his pretty, tattooed chest -- which helps to make the often-meandering show somewhat watchable.
Hawke, who also directs the production, proves to be a generous scene partner, allowing his castmates to showcase various aspects of their talent. (Every performer, with the exception of Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio, has multiple roles in the production.) D'Onofrio gives the most interesting performance, as he brings a mesmerizing floridity (and an odd semi-Southern accent) to his role as the seemingly aimless Doc, who becomes Clive's loyal companion. Zoe Kazan fully inhabits the numerous women in Clive's life, notably the innocent Joanna, who willingly gives Clive her virginity, and the not-so-innocent Sophie, whom he eventually impregnates then abandons. Brooks Ashmanskas is vivid in a variety of parts, from a sleazy record producer to Clive's frustrated landlord to a kindly priest. Even Stephanie Jannsen, Aaron Krohn, Mahira Kakkar, and Dana Lyn make favorable impressions, though few of their roles have any depth or substance.
In his role as director, Hawke has given a lot of thought to the physical production, enlisting some of theater's top-notch talents (many of whom he's worked with previously) to carry out his vision. Among the most notable contributors is Tony Award-winning set designer Derek McLane, who creates a spectacular backdrop that makes unusual use of beer cans and labels, as well the seven doors that double as musical instruments for the original soundscape, by brothers Latham and Shelby Gaines.
Still, as Clive meets his ignominious end when the proceedings finally come to a close, one has to wonder what anyone involved really believes this unpleasant work has to say to 21st-century audiences – other than choose your friends (and lovers) wisely. And that has been said in far shorter and more interesting ways than Clive.