Piss not upon anyone, lest ye be pissed upon. Sorry to be crude, but that seems to be the gist of Clive, Jonathan Marc Sherman’s puerile 1990s-ish gloss on Brecht’s maiden play Baal, written in 1918 (he was 20) and an open-and-shut scandal when first performed in 1922.
In this weird transposition (you couldn’t call it a translation; Sherman claims he worked it up from a Google Translate rendition), Ethan Hawke, as director, has assigned himself the title role, that of a vain alt-musician with spiky Billy Idol hair and a seemingly insatiable taste for fresh female flesh – that and old barbershop-quartet tunes such as “Aura Lee.” Come again? Hawke has a pleasingly low, rumbly voice, and the song selections, spanning a couple of spirituals, might actually make sense in the current era of recycled, neo-folkie kitsch. But why isn’t this punk singing punk?
That’s the least mystery surrounding this crypto-cautionary tale. Foremost is the question why reputable performers would take part in such a dispiriting, lackluster endeavor. Vincent D’Onofrio lends a certain gravitas as Clive’s good-angel pal Doc (he certainly gets to throw his weight around, while exercising a most peculiar Ninth Ward accent), and Brooks Ashmanskas’s considerable comedic chops are at once exploited and wasted in a medley of roles lumped under the rubric “2nd Man.” Stephanie Janssen makes a strong impression as “1st Woman,” and that’s saying something, because the depiction of females here is reductive and dismissive, when not outright misogynistic; they’re portrayed as interchangeable objects to be toyed with, then tossed aside.
Costumer Catherine Zuber, ordinarily so astute, supplies the most salient victim, Johanna (played listlessly by Zoe Kazan as a caricature of knock-kneed virtue) with a flapper’s shift and giant hair bow: shorthand for “virgin at risk.” And sure enough Johanna is, ultimately figuring among a parade of gaga paramours done in by Clive’s questionable allure.
It takes Clive almost two intermission-less hours of boring druggie blather (including an encounter with some curiously peppy junkies) to end up exiled to some godforsaken Canadian fishing camp, where his quivering, emaciated near-carcass receives that para-baptism by urine. Compared to the audience, he has not suffered near enough. “A rat is dying in the gutter,” he intones morosely, twice. “So what.” To which one can only add: Amen.