Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row
410 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Monday - Saturday through March 9, $61.25
Partway through Clive, the title character tells a burly friend, “You lost me, man.” The audience can say the same thing to playwright and actor Jonathan Marc Sherman (Knickerbocker, Evolution) and director and title character Ethan Hawke in the New Group’s awkward adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s first full-length play, Baal. In a program note, Sherman explains, “Clive is based on, inspired by, and stolen from the German version of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal published in Potsdam in 1922. I worked from a literal translation courtesy of Google Translate. I do not recommend that you try this.” Indeed, the hundred-minute play is annoying and confusing, very much like Google-translated prose. Hawke and Sherman, who previously collaborated on the New Group’s Things We Want, turn the main character into an aging, debauched punk rocker, in spiked white hair and black leather jacket, who prefers sex and drugs to rock and roll. Early on, during a game of Truth or Dare, he spits in the face of a record deal in favor of snorting different kinds of coke and coming on rather heavily to a prominent producer’s wife. He ultimately beds her, as well as a bandmate’s virgin girlfriend and just about every other woman he comes into contact with, and that’s a big part of the problem with the play, based on a work that famously ran for only one performance when it was first staged in 1923: there isn’t a likable character anywhere to be seen, starting with Clive himself, who is as uninteresting as he is despicable, making it hard to believe that all of these women are such suckers. Over the years, the role of Baal has been played by a diverse range of actors, including Oskar Homolka, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and David Bowie, with varying success; Hawke, who won an Obie for his performance in the New Group’s Blood from a Stone, is unlikely to garner any awards for transforming Baal/Clive into a psychotic escapee from a Billy Idol video who doesn’t really have much to say. The most compelling part of the production is the stage itself, with its beer-label wallpaper, front pit, and seven musical doors designed by the sibling art duo GAINES. The doors, scattered in strategically yet seemingly random places, are visually and aurally intriguing, occasionally played by the supporting cast, which includes Brooks Ashmankas and Zoe Kazan in multiple roles and Vincent D’Onofrio as a bald hulk who regularly lets loose bizarre howls. But the design doesn’t meld with the rest of the show, instead feeling out of place, a whole lot of art for art’s sake, which pretty much sums up the misbegotten Clive as well.