If you want to find beauty and meaning in life, it's probably a good idea to stop looking for it in your mirror.
Bertolt Brecht's first full-length play "Baal," written in 1918 when Brecht was a 20-year-old university student, was a nightmarish expressionist drama about a dissolute poet-musician seeking inspiration through sex and drugs.
The New Group's modern-day production, "Clive," set in the 1990s and directed by and starring Ethan Hawke, opened Thursday off-Broadway at Theatre Row. Visually interesting and well-acted, the dark play tells a tragic story with brittle, noirish humor and mockery.
A series of often-mysogynistic scenes crash past in fragments, featuring Hawke as antihero rock musician Clive. "Any story that can be understood is just a badly told story," says one character blithely, which helps explain the disjointed misadventures of Clive inventively staged by Hawke.
Playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, who also performs a few roles and plays the piano, claims in a production note that he used the 1922 German version of Brecht's work via a Google translation. A funny idea but, one hopes, not completely true.
For a portrait of debauched self-indulgence, Hawke has well-cast himself, featuring a wild-haired, punk-rock appearance and manic grin. Clive is allegedly undertaking a search for beauty and meaning in life, but he's conducting it via complete self-gratification and abandon, primarily by seducing a series of pretty young women and then discarding them like so much trash.
Hawke succeeds at conveying his character's combination of childlike selfishness combined with adult cruelty, as Clive's boozing and drugging and lust and treachery send him into a downward spiral of deterioration. While Clive does many despicable things, Hawke also makes him magnetic and at times almost sympathetic. Increasingly despairing, Clive observes, "I always believed in myself but I fear I'm becoming an atheist."
Brooks Ashmanskas brings a special zest to his roles, which include a cuckold, a showy landlord, a priest (so Clive can mock God) and others. Vincent D'Onofrio gives a solid, appealing performance as Clive's friend Doc. True to form, Clive eventually screws Doc over, too, as he degenerates into homicide.
If you think the many female characters all look alike, that's because three women play nearly all of them. Zoe Kazan is especially fragile, yet tenacious and sensual, in her portrayals of two virginal young girls who are stolen by Clive from his friends, then treated like dirt. Stephanie Janssen, Mahira Kakkar, Aaron Krohn and Dana Lyn ably round out the cast; Lyn also provides lovely violin and piano music.
Catherine Zuber's sexy, punk-inspired costumes and the lighting, sound and music designs, which include instruments mounted on doors, add to an atmosphere of dreaminess and dissonance that envelops this tale of Clive's self-destruction.
Derek McLane's spare set design includes a hanging, silvery curtain made of hundreds of twisted beer can pieces, which call to mind Clive's irretrievably broken soul and all the lives he shattered on his reckless road to ruin.