Bertolt Brecht's Baal is pretty much the type of play you'd expect to be written by a 20-year-old student who would eventually become known for using dramatic techniques meant to alienate the audience from any emotional connection to the characters. Now his social commentary about a hard-drinking outcast poet womanizer and murderer has been given a 1990s spin from The New Group in playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman's Clive.
Ethan Hawke, who also directs, is the title punk rock star, first seen convincing his producer's wife to allow him to snort cocaine from her cleavage. Throughout the episodic evening, Clive's bad boy charisma seems to have an effect on women, who dive into his bed as quickly as he can kick out the previous occupant. In lieu of plot we follow the self-destructive path of a self-absorbed hedonist naively looking for life's meaning through sex, drugs and… you know the rest.
Hawke, one of the few actors in the cast who doesn't play multiple roles, nicely underplays the part, but Sherman fails at the tricky business of sustaining interest in watching an unfeeling jerk's decline. As in his previous New Group offering, Things We Want (also directed by Hawke), the playwright displays a talent for dark, character-driven dialogue ("Here. I found (your dress) on the floor. Right next to your virginity.") but the piece as a whole is dull.
The technique of having actors recite their own stage directions aloud is equal parts Brechtian and annoying.
Nevertheless, the play benefits from a fine production with solid performances by Brooks Ashmanskas as the older authority figures (The velour track suit he wears as the producer is a highlight of Catherine Zuber's period costume collection.), Zoe Kazan as Clive's self-esteemless virginal conquests and Vincent D'Onofrio as the rocker's ambiguous pal.
Derek McLane's set makes clever use of beer cans and labels and utilizes seven doors (Get it? Seven.) that help create an interesting musical soundscape by Latham and Shelby Gaines.
Photo of Ethan Hawke and Zoe Kazan by Monique Carboni.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.