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Matt Sax's appeal as a solo performer doesn't save his uneasy marriage of hip-hop and theater.

Matt Sax in Clay
(© Laura Muir)
It would be easy to cast a cynical glance at Matt Sax's solo piece Clay, the debut production from LCT3, Lincoln Center Theatre's new initiative. After all, the show features hip-hop music and an affordable bottom line, both of which make it attractive to producers. But if something cynical is afoot, no one has told the utterly sincere Sax, who is giving the not entirely successful work everything he's got.

Clay takes the framing device of a concert, with the eponymous star (nee Clifford) arriving late and bloodied. How he got to that point consumes most of the evening's 90 minutes, as we trace his family history and his apprenticeship to rap tutor Sir John. But ultimately, the piece feels neither like theater nor hip-hop. It's an uneasy marriage -- better still, that marriage's wedding party -- where we find the unlikely couple all dressed up, on their best behavior, and so cautious that there's no chance of disaster. Sadly, there's no chance of anything interesting happening either.

Sax is quite engaging, with a natural likability -- and though he knows it, he rarely overplays. Indeed, his best moments are the simplest ones. He's ill-served, however, by his own less-than-subtle script, as well as by director Eric Rosen, who helped develop the piece, and presumably provided the herky-jerky transitions and off-rhythm choreography that seem external to both Sax and the show. While the songs (by Sax with additional music by Jon Schmidt and Jonny Williams), are stronger, they mainly wind up pointing out how much craft actually goes into good hip-hop. Indeed, Sax's gentle, portentous lyrics are the hip-hop equivalent of "june/moon" rhymes.

Throughout the script, much is made of how hip-hop can hold any true story. Indeed, it's true that Sax shows some nice perspective in having Clay turn away from lyrics outside his experience as a suburban Jewish white boy. Nevertheless, hip-hop treatment can't turn a self-serious slice of mommy-and-daddy issues into an engaging experience. All it can do is just lay a beat under them.

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