Thursday, February 14, 2013

“Clive” - A dark human drama without the humanity

By Judd Hollander
Photos: Monique Carboni

The New Group presents a powerful look at one man's hedonistic descent into self-destruction with Clive, now at Theatre Row Studios.

Based on, inspired by and stolen from the German version of Bertolt Brecht's Baal -written in 1918 and retold here by Jonathan Marc Sherman - as noted in the press notes, Ethan Hawke directs and stars as the title character, a man who is basically a walking train wreck. A struggling New York musician who lives in a seventh floor walk-up, attempts to get his career going are continually stifled by his excesses of sex, drugs and alcohol. His having an affair with the wife of the man who might have become his music producer was also probably not a good idea. In short order Clive takes one woman after another into his bed, all the while snorting cocaine off everything from a woman's breast to his own guitar.

One can safely state that Clive is a totally despicable character in every way, yet for some unknown reason, women fall all over themselves to please him, to be with him and ultimately fall in love with him. Yet he feels nothing in these encounters but his own need for pleasure and release. Or does he in reality feel something so deep one can only catch a fleeting glimmer of it? He does at rare moments display a moment of regret, though it quickly vanishes, if it were ever actually there in the first place. It's this aspect of not knowing which makes the story and character so interesting, as one tries to make sense of what is presented.

It's also not only the ladies who wind up permanently hurt by Clive's actions. Rather, just about everyone whose path he crosses winds up damaged, such as Joey (Aaron Krohn), an earnest fellow who ends up becoming a drunk in his own right, at least part of that end game having to do with Clive's encounter with Joanna (Zoe Kazan), Joey's once-virginal girlfriend. Clive's one true friend is the mysterious Doc (wonderfully played by Vincent D'Onofrio), a big burly enigma of man who at one point almost seems to embody the darker side of Clive, if such a thing is possible, continually urging his friend to go deeper and deeper into the moral abyss.

This running theme of reaping what one sows also serves to undo the play somewhat, as there is no emotional or intellectual connection offered as a means to get inside Clive's head and see just what is driving him. It's a problem that also hinders other character development of the play time and again. So while the production in itself is quite interesting, said interest comes from watching what happens and seeing how far Clive can go, rather than caring at all about just where he or the others in the play end up. Thus the story becomes more vicariously powerful than anything more meaningful.

Hawke does do a great job as Clive, portraying someone whose life has been spiraling out of control long before the show began. Directorially, Hawke keeps the action moving and the information imparted interesting enough, where just as one thinks events can't get any worse, they do. However, as mentioned above, having a little more emotional connection with Clive would have made the play work better. Whether this is a problem that lies solely with Hawke's interpretation and direction, or in Sherman's adaptation of the original tale, or in the original tale itself is open to question. The show does a good job in setting events in no particular point in time--it supposedly takes place in the 1990s, but could actually be happening pretty much anywhere over the last 35 years or so.

The rest of the actors, most of whom play multiple roles, all do quite well. Kazan is effective as the innocent yet questioning Joanna, while Krohn offers a somber look at his own moral collapse - going from a seemingly principled young man to what is essentially another Clive in training. D'Onofrio is excellent as the stranger that is Doc, a person who offers far more questions than answers and who latches onto Clive with a figurative death grip, one which Clive eventually learns to embrace. So much so that Clive tries to destroy Doc's own little moments of personal happiness. Kazan is also particularly poignant as Sophie, a woman who, like all the others should run as far away from Clive as she can, but who also like all others is captivated by the mysterious magnetism that Clive exudes and finds she cannot leave, nor does she want to.

The various sets by Derek McLane nicely fit the atmosphere of play and the sound design by Shane Rettig works well.

An interesting piece to be sure, Clive presents a fascinating tale of one human being's destruction and degradation, without really including the human factor in the equation. A choice which has both its pluses and minuses in the finished product.

By Jonathan Marc Sherman
Directed by Ethan Hawke

Featuring: Brooks Ashmanskas (2nd Man), Vincent D'Onofrio (Doc) Ethan Hawke (Clive), Stephanie Janssen (1st Woman), Mahira Kakkar (2nd Woman), Zoe Kazan (3rd Woman), Aaron Krohn (1st Man), Dana Lyn (4th Woman), Jonathan Marc Sherman (3rd Man)

Set: Derek McLane
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Jeff Croiter
Sound: Shane Rettig
Music & Sound Sculpture: Gaines
Assistant Director: Marie Master, Sam Creely
Fight Director: David Anzuelo
Production Supervisor: Peter R. Feuchtwanger, PRF Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson, C.S.A.
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski, Seven17 PR

Presented by The New Group
Acorn Theatre
Theatre Row Studios
Actor theatre
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Closes: March 9, 2013

Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 minutes, no intermission

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