Off-Broadway Theater Review: CLIVE (Acorn Theatre)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on February 8, 2013

in Theater-New York


The charisma and passion Ethan Hawke brings to the title role, Vincent D’Onofrio’s powerful stage presence, a gnarly set by Derek McLane, lovely songs by Latham and Shelby Gains, and evocative lighting (Jeff Croiter), sound (Shane Rettig) and costumes (Cathrine Zuber) all fail to save Jonathan Marc Sherman’s new play, Clive, from being a snoozefest. Well-intentioned though it might be under Mr. Hawke’s energetic but ultimately misguided direction, this story of a struggling indie-rock artist whose drinking, drugging and womanizing take him from misery to damnation, lacks the details, nuance, drama and depth to give it credibility and elevate it above a well-worn and somewhat pretentious tale of a talented narcissist’s self-destruction.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of CLIVE at the Acorn Off-BroadwayThe play begins with a party celebrating Clive and his band being signed to their first recording contract. But when he insults his music producer and openly makes several passes at the producer’s wife, things go south. The next dramatic moment – that is, one that captures interest and stirs up emotion – happens about an hour later in this 105 minute show. In between, Clive parties, seduces, abuses, rejects and destroys, and Mr. Hawke in his capacity as director creates a lively atmosphere with exciting blocking and outstanding stagecraft elements. But dramatically all of it feels like one long, straight line.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of CLIVE at the Acorn Off-BroadwayOne big problem from which many of the other problems in this play stem is that despite Mr. Hawke’s personal appeal Clive is a completely unsympathetic character, and not because he keeps doing bad things but because he never really struggles with or wants anything (until the last two or three minutes of the show but by then we don’t care). An argument can be made that Clive is precisely that sort of indifferent person – nihilist for lack of a better word.  But this seems disingenuous. Even the most nihilistic individuals have things they care a great deal about at certain moments, and drama’s job is to bring those moments to the surface in a meaningful, insightful and emotional way. More to the point though, truly self-destructive individuals don’t destroy themselves because they don’t care. On the contrary, they have very powerful needs, often so powerful that they simply cannot be met. This seems to be Clive’s tragedy, unfortunately it never quite crystallizes.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of CLIVE at the Acorn Off-BroadwayWhen Clive is miserable, he looks miserable (though there isn’t the dramatic foundation for us to be able to empathize with him). But when he’s partying he looks almost as wretched. People don’t inebriate themselves to be unhappy; they do it because it makes them feel great. Unfortunately that dichotomy is virtually nonexistent here. It’s ironic in a way: On the one hand the show seems to exalt hedonism, painting Clive, its representative, as a seductive character – handsome, sardonic, dangerous, irresistible to women, admired by men, a poet with a guitar, dressed in black, etc. – but at the same time both playwright and director can’t seem to quite accept the idea that hedonism can be fun. They appear in fact to be tethered, in spite of themselves, by precisely that American puritanical mentality they are supposedly trying to transcend.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of CLIVE at the Acorn Off-Broadway“Big picture” would be one way to describe Mr. Hawke’s direction, his focus seemingly on creating a world and a mood. Unfortunately, he does so often at the expense of dramatic opportunities: A point is made of telling us that Clive lives at the top floor of a seven story walkup, yet we never see him struggle to get up those stairs, something that might have been worthwhile to show in light of his turning down a record contract which would have allowed him to get a place with an elevator. Also, a stylistic choice is made for performers to vocalize certain stage directions – done occasionally this might work, but they do it incessantly, which gets irritating.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema review of CLIVE at the Acorn Off-BroadwayMore problematic, a sense of playacting occurs when actors tell us what they are supposed to be doing and then do that thing, such as when a character says “I am crying,” then begins to fake-cry. While this does infuse the production with a certain self-consciousness as well as a vaudevillian or carnival element, which Mr. Hawke seems to be going for, it adds nothing dramatically and subtracts emotionally from it. In general one feels that both writer and director are in fact more concerned with style than with substance, approaching the material from the outside and trying to get it to look a certain way for an audience, as opposed to climbing into the characters, into the body of the play, and figuring out how to make it work from within.

Mr. D’Onofrio plays Doc, Clive’s debauchery companion, with power and conviction. Unfortunately his character isn’t sufficiently defined. Other cast members, all of whom play a variety of roles, are Brooks Ashmanskas, Mahira Kakkar, Zoe Kazan, Aaron Krohn, Stephanie Janssen, Dana Lyn and the playwright himself.

In the playbill, Mr. Sherman is quoted as saying: “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.” Giving Mr. Sherman the benefit of the doubt, one assumes that he’s kidding about that last part. Still, the playbill has another quote by Eric Bentley from his book Bertolt Brecht’s First Play (which is Baal), who writes “More than thirty years later, Brecht was to take a look back at this play and speak of the love of pleasure, the search for happiness, as its subject.” Regrettably one feels almost none of that coming from Mr. Sherman’s version.

photos by Monique Carboni

The New Group at The Acorn Theatre in Theatre Row
scheduled to end on March 9, 2013
for tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit

{ 1 comment }

Jake Mannix February 8, 2013 at 11:06 am

I saw the play (“Clive”) three nights ago. Honestly, it was easily the worst play I’ve ever seen. Four people in the audience walked out 20 minutes into the play, and I wish I had gone with them. It tried SO hard to be “artsy,” but it was just a senseless, mindless rendition of idiotic nonsense. Sad.

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