Stars just wanna have fun. And who dares deny them their sport, when we’re talking about high-profile thesps like Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio, currently frolicking with the New Group in “Clive”? Jonathan Marc Sherman’s baggy adaptation of “Baal” transforms the dissolute 1920s poet of Bertolt Brecht’s first play into a dissolute 1990s songwriter, and Hawke’s loose helming prompts the cast to unleash its collective id and revel in the play’s strenuous debauchery. Finding itself ignored, the audience might feel like tiptoeing out and leaving the players to enjoy their private party.
Just when we thought we’d finally seen the last of it, punk lives again. Despite the shame of having to answer to the absurd name of Clive, Hawke does a pretty good impression of a better-nourished Sid Vicious — although the bogus musicians backing him up are but a pale imitation of the Sex Pistols. Sexy/scary in spiked bleached-blond hair and black leather trousers so tight they look like they were stitched onto his bare butt by costumer Catherine Zuber, the strutting Hawke tackles with gusto his Brechtian role of the punk antichrist who corrupts everyone he meets and spoils everything he touches.
In updating the material, Sherman makes a point of preserving the pivotal character of Baal/Clive as the amoral artist who shows his contempt for bourgeois society by taking its money, screwing its women and mocking its values through his subversive art.
The broad liberties the scribe has taken with the original story are practical without being especially imaginative. The pompous burgher whose wife Baal seduces is reborn here as a self-important music producer who practically hands his woman to Clive. Baal’s drinking companions are recast in Clive’s world as cokeheads and smack junkies.
Loose as it is, the script does preserve all the essential plot details about deflowering virgins, betraying comrades, driving women to suicide, and killing his best friend — all dynamic activities that Hawke pursues with an impish grin. It’s the kind of performance that simply mows down anyone in its crosshairs.
Not that the supporting players offer much resistance. Only Zoe Kazan, playing a waiflike virgin and looking positively edible in her little white dress and Madonna-inspired gloves, manages to portray something that resembles a character.
The only one who keeps Hawke from swallowing the show whole is D’Onofrio as Doc, a mysterious figure who seems to have originated with Baal’s friend, Ekart. This slippery character first appears as a satanic presence, but mutates into Clive’s friend and eventually his victim. Untroubled by the fact that he’s playing a character that makes no sense, D’Onofrio taps into the unpredictable persona of that crazy cop he plays on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and just goes with the erratic flow.
Will Doc revert to his satanic self? Will he save Clive from himself or leave him to his fate? Who knows. The character shifts direction like a weather vane, and D’Onofrio gleefully goes along for the ride.
In one scene that looks completely improvisational, Doc and Clive are sitting on the floor of a cabin hideaway, having a close encounter, so close that Doc looks as if he will either kiss Clive’s lips or bite them off. With D’Onofrio, it could go either way — an unpredictable quality that Brecht himself might consider to be the essence of a scary performance.