I feel like Ethan Hawke and I have grown old together. His latest directorial effort, Clive, is brief yet interrrrrrminable, and our lives together flashed before my eyes. (Slowly. Excruciatingly!) We were Explorers together, we bit reality just a few years apart, and we will always, always have Paris, and Julie Delpy. (Well: He will.) Hawke was X, I was Y; he was a whole lot prettier and, I can safely assume, had a whole lot more fun, his mirror-practiced mope-face aside. And to paraphrase another nineties totem The Crying Game — we’re certainly not a young thing anymore.
You know who is a young thing? And always will be? Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, the quasi-anti-romantic hero of his first play, Baal. He’s all cruelty and animal vitality — a user and discarder of women and men (but especially women), a predator, a scavenger, and, naturally, an artist, though not a particularly great one. (The best, most endearing aspect of Baal is what a square and lame-o poet he is.) Brecht was a college student when he created the character and seems to have had no thunderous opinion on what Baal meant as an archetype or as a man. He was interested in what he was, his phenomenology, how a Baal functioned in a fallen world. Later, Brecht would call Baal a “relative man,” a “passive genius” deft at “exploiting the exploiters,” who is “antisocial, but in an antisocial society.” All of this sounds a lot like late-breaking revisionism to me. (Brecht also wrote, “I admit (and advise you): This play is lacking in wisdom.”) There were a lot of fascists running around, hijacking Expressionism, claiming the postromantic hero as their own, and this play was a molotov lobbed through the window of that particularly villainous frat house. Like Baal, Brecht was just having a good time being bad, in anticipation of very bad times to come.
The problem with Clive — “based on, inspired by, stolen from Brecht’s Baal” — is that it’s not having a very good time at all. It lacks relish, which would seem to be a key ingredient in any story about the ruthless pursuit of pleasure. Clive is directed by Hawke, who also stars as the title character, a would-be rock idol with Billy Idolatrous hair and eye shadow. It’s set in the kinda-nineties, and there are cheeky nods to Reality Bites, especially in Clive’s plunky three-chord songs. At times, the whole thing seems to be a joke on the Hawke persona — or maybe just a joke, period. (In his author’s note, playwright/adaptor Jonathan Marc Sherman writes, “I worked from a literal translation courtesy of Google Translate. I do not recommend that you try this.” And how!)
But the jest, alas, savours but of shallow wit, when hundreds sleep more than do laugh at it. (Wow, Clive apparently brings out the intellectually defensive English major in all of us!) The opening is highly promising: A grim if not really sincere benediction on the nature of evil from Doc (twitch-monster-from-another-dimension Vincent D’Onofrio, who doffs his hairpiece and puts on a cornpone drawl). This is followed by a strummed hymn croaked by Clive himself. Everyone’s hopping around Derek McClane’s abstract-yet-lived-in set, with its doors to nowhere and hidden musical instruments built into every cranny. It’s a world absotively wet with possibility, a world just waiting to be diddled and despoiled. Now what?
Now … not much. Clive proceeds systematically to sabotage his ascent as a rock star, throw offal in the faces of the powerful, and go through women like the Goodwill rummage bin. He has two idée fixes: a teenage girl (Zoe Kazan, who has a gift for indecency I wish this production would allow her to explore even further) and an ursine hill-spirit of a grown man (D’Onofrio). Both are innocents, both are Clive (or facets of Clive), and our bad boy, caught between them, eventually destroys both in defense of his sacred independence. Hawke’s performance falls into an uncanny valley: He’s too close to Clive to have perspective, but too different — and, frankly, a bit too old — to merge with the feral fun. He falls back on the throaty, craggy slackerdom we know so well, and misses opportunities to guide and focus the show’s energies as a director, perhaps because he’s too busy with actor business. (Hawke’s an excellent director — his Lie of the Mind proved that, but it’s a tall order to direct and act when you are the play.) Clive feels more like a busy little bureaucratic tangle of inside jokes and outsize personalities than a fully fleshed production. Instead of pulsating with forbidden, demonic energy, it just kind of sits there chuckling bitterly, the gnomic drunk in the corner instead of the life of the party. Well, balls.
Clive is playing at Theatre Row through March 9.
All the Rage
In “The Tricky Part,” mild-mannered Broadway actor Martin Moran (Spamalot) courageously revisited the child he was (gay, repressed, abused by a camp counselor at 12) with eerie grace. Eight years later, he’s asking himself, “Where’s the anger?” All the Rage, a one-man show presented on a nearly bare stage, presents as a breezy tour of a midlife crisis, then positions us over spring-loaded trapdoors into subcellars of pain and fury. Beneath the diplomatic smiles and the inner-seething is a half-hidden tale of loss — and Moran’s too skilled an entertainer not to make it all mordantly funny.
All the Rage is at Peter Jay Sharp Theater (located inside Playwrights Horizons) through February 24.
The Man Who Laughs, from The Stolen Chair Theatre Company, transforms frowsy Urban Stages into an old-fashioned silent-movie theater, complete with sumptuous piano accompaniment (by composer Eugene Ma). The “flicker” on offer: a fully live-staged version of the 1923 film about a clown with a face mutiliated into a perma-grin, adapted from a novel by Victor Hugo. The movie was the inspiration for The Joker. And this lovely, creepy little show could be the inspiration for a very goth date night.
The Man Who Laughs is at Urban Stages Through February 24.