Baal Buster


Ethan Hawke allures even in filthy leather pants and a ridiculous dye job. This is no mean feat. He stars in Clive as the titular amoral, asocial antihero. But as much as you may cheer Hawke’s aggressive performance, you may also hiss the director subjecting you to the tedious 100 minutes in which it appears. Unfortunately, that’s Hawke too.

For the New Group, playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman has adapted Bertolt Brecht’s first play, the 1918 Baal, affording it a new location and a less resonant name. “Baal” alludes to the ancient Semitic god, notorious for strength and appetite. Clive merely references that character. Now set in pre-gentrification New York, this lifeless version trades lumberjacks for junkies, booze for cocaine, and Baal’s folk poetry for Clive’s rock-and-roll, though Hawke’s rasp doesn’t mark him as a natural singer.

On Derek McLane’s appealingly seedy set, constructed from beer cases and cans, Clive struts, fights, dodges, ducks, and fucks his way through the play. As an actor–a very gifted one–Hawke delights in parodying his own appeal, daring us to desire him even as his character grows more depraved. That’s in line with a play that both celebrates hedonism and reminds us that unfettered pleasure is morally (and often physically) corrosive. Sure, that first bourbon tastes great going down, but how about the twelfth?

Most of the scenes have a sameness–a fault of Brecht’s original, too–that deadens attention even as all the women in the cast (save the musician) repeatedly strip down to their underwear. This misogyny is also apparent in the original, but Sherman might have taken some steps to correct it. Why cast Zoe Kazan, an astonishing actress, in parts that a blow-up sex doll might have easily assayed? Vincent D’Onofrio, with a shaved head and wandering Southern accent, seems equally wasted in the role of Doc.

Watching the episodic action spool out, you sense the actors must have had a louche and lively time in rehearsal, but their enjoyment never includes the audience. Hawke and Sherman have worked together often before, and Clive smacks of something dreamed up during a post-show bender. But a vanity project really ought to be a lot more flattering.