Vincent D’Onofrio and Ethan Hawke star in a mostly gassy Brechtian exercise

Vincent D'Onofrio and Ethan Hawke. (Monique Carboni.)
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If you've ever witnessed something labeled "experimental theater," you already know what to expect---good and bad--from Clive, a modern retelling of Bertolt Brecht's first full-length play that gets its world premiere this week thanks to The New Group.

Baal is a seldom performed piece, written when Brecht was a 20-year-old university student and before he settled into the "epic theater" style that's associated so closely with him today. Clive, which overall feels like an empty exercise by playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman and director Ethan Hawke, roughly follows the outline of its source material: the poet Baal of the 1923 play has has been transformed into the rock-and-roll singer Clive, but both follow the same downward spiral of drinking and debasement.

The list of what's good about the play starts with the music, especially the first number sung by Hawke (who also stars in the production), a gospel-flavored tune called "You Must Come In at the Door." Hawke may be only a passable guitar player, but he has an appealingly gravelly voice and a confident swagger that make him convincing as an up-and-coming, then down-and-out rock star.

The original music for Clive was written by Latham and Shelby Gaines, who also created a series of seven wooden doors that are scattered around the stage. They've been fitted with various strings and bells and other items, transforming them into musical instruments the performers play throughout the evening. The play doesn't make any other use of them, but they do lend the production some experimental credibility. And, they're pretty darn cool on their own.

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In fact, nothing else in the production comes close to the creativity of those doors. This usually brilliant creative team seems to have been left to its own devices. Hung with glittering beer cans, Derek McLane's set is a too-literal representation of the main character's alcoholism, and Jeff Croiter's lighting is flat and unflattering. Even Catherine Zuber's costumes are strictly off the rack.

The cast, including old pros like Brooks Ashmanskas, is all adrift. It was probably a mistake for Hawke to take on directing and acting responsibilities, as nobody has been instructed to tone things down, least of all Hawke himself. And poor Vincent D'Onofrio, in the thankless role of Clive's best friend Doc, doesn't do himself any favors by trying to match Hawke's jittery intensity. He's most effective in the play's rare quieter moments.

Sherman advises the audience that in writing this adaptation, he worked from "a literal translation courtesy Google Translate." ("I do not recommend you try this," he adds in the program.) Not surprising, as much of the dialog, especially in the last few scenes, has a robotic sound (and this is not, even in an "experimental" setting, a good thing). And his choice to have characters read some of their own stage directions ("I am sobbing uncontrollably now," says one of Clive's conquests) isn't used consistently enough to make it seem like a meaningful creative choice.

His own battles with alcoholism are part of what Sherman says drew him to the project, but he has added very little to the play besides the title: "Clive" was his "boozy nickname" back when he drank. Despite his attempt to bring it up to date, Clive still feels a century old.

Clive is playing at Acorn Theatre in Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Tickets are available at 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.