There is an ominous warning to be gleaned from the premiere production of BAAL, Bertolt Brecht's explosive and profane first play. Composed at the ever-volatile age of twenty, Brecht's tale of a drunken, despairing poet opened in 1923 at the Altes theater in Leipzig, Germany, and according to an amusing note from dramaturg Cobina Gillitt, the authorities took a quick disliking to it. "Leipzig's mayor deemed Brecht's play too provocative," writes Gillit, "and shut it down after a single performance overrun by the audience's hoots, howls, and whistles."
No such fate is likely to befall CLIVE, the new project by Jonathan Marc Sherman at the New Group, which is "based on, inspired by, and stolen from" Brecht's original drama. The First Amendment, and decades of tradition, would certainly seem to preclude any censorship from the government. And anyway, this is New York City--- doesn't the mayor have more important things to do? Yes, audiences will surely have the chance to visit CLIVE at Theater Row for just as long as it has been scheduled to run. Whether they should, though, is quite another matter.
Directed by and starring Ethan Hawke, and featuring one of the hippest casts in town (including Zoe Kazan and the playwright Sherman himself), CLIVE dutifully extracts and updates many of BAAL's essential elements, in the hope of rendering its story more recognizable. And some of the production's outer design succeeds quite dazzlingly, from Derek Mclane's brilliant set to the unique "sound sculpture" provided by Gaines. But despite its attractive polish, and the obvious talent of its creators, at its core CLIVE feels like a misguided theatrical exercise in cruelty and indulgence.
Sherman has transplanted the action to New York City in the 1990's, and in place of Brecht's poet he has given us a rock musician named Clive, who lives in a seven-floor walkup and, besides strumming out weepy ballads on his guitar, doesn't seem to have much on his mind besides drugs and women. The narrative thrust is roughly identical to that of BAAL, with our troubled anti-hero roaming the countryside, impregnating mistresses and eventually becoming a fugitive from the law. As with Brecht, the story here does not follow patterns of change, catharsis, and climax, so much as it depicts a dark cycle of misdeeds, each of which seems merely to escalate Clive's rage and alienation.
For Brecht, the point of this nightmarish portrait was to demolish popular notions of the noble, suffering artist, and BAAL was specifically intended as a rebuttal to THE LONELY, a more commercial play of his era that included these romantic ideas. When produced today, BAAL is a flawed but vivid journey from the mind of a young artist who later reached far greater theatrical heights. But by moving us to the grungy days of the 90's music scene, CLIVE has traded the cultural abundance of 1920's German culture for the narcissism of an amoral Generation X rocker. None of his behavior--- drugs, girls, homicide--- will seem surprising, or shocking, or even noteworthy to casual viewers of VH1's "Behind the Music," or casual readers of tabloids, or even casual listeners to the radio. Since this behavior forms the entire action of CLIVE, you might start to feel restless long before the evening's ninety minutes are up.
It might've turned out rather differently, if you sensed there was a full commitment to the world of the play and all its moving parts. But Hawke, as director, has not taken it as far as it can go, and some of the avoidances are downright frustrating. His attempt at meta-theatricality, with actors reading stage directions ("I give Clive the bottle," followed by that exact action) hints of Brecht's later experiments, but it seems repetitive and half-hearted. A hint of bisexual attraction between two characters, never consummated, seems badly dated. Sherman has an elegant, poetic style ("The air in this room is like milk, and the sidewalk is still wet from the rain"), but many of his punch lines fall flat. It's a tall order, under any circumstances, to direct and star in the same piece, and while Hawke gives an intriguingly energetic performance, he and the rest of the hard-working cast seem to suffer from the lack of an objective eye. (The other actors, while impressive, are notably underused.)
And, finally: isn't Hawke sort of too old for this? I don't just mean for his character--- though at forty-two, the bleached-blonde hair and hipster clothes have a faded nostalgia that wears poorly even on this comeliest of movie stars. I've enjoyed seeing Hawke in many contexts, from Chekhov to David Rabe to the films of Richard Linklater, but the unearned cynicism and forced artiness on display here, while appropriate for a precocious college freshman, seems past its expiration date.
The New Group, one of the city's boldest institutional theaters, has reached for much more genuine shocks before, and undoubtedly will again; their production of Thomas Bradshaw's BURNING remains one of the most upsetting and memorable nights I've ever had at the theater. But CLIVE is more exhausting than anything else, borne out by the muted, polite applause that greeted it at the Saturday night performance I attended. The wrath of a German mayor is one thing, but in the twenty-first century, perhaps there's no fury like the indifference of discerning theatergoers.