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First Nighter: Clive, Moose Murders Include Deaths in More Ways Than One

02/07/2013 10:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2013

Ethan Hawke -- who directed and plays the title character in Jonathan Marc Sherman's Clive at the New Group's Acorn home -- begins by singing Doc Watson's "You Must Come In at the Door." He staccatos the folk-y threnody as if he were Tom Waits, and the rendition couldn't be more intriguing.

Moreover, it's a promising beginning not only for the song and the delivery (Hawke's on guitar, too) but because the "door" motif obviously dictated Derek McLane's commanding set which features seven free-standing weather-beaten doors. Beside those, there's a fringe of tinsel-like stalactites hanging over the stage where much of the action takes place in a grey conversation pit.

All to the good, so far, but that's where the not-so-good seeps into a script that Sherman has adapted from Bertolt Brecht's rarely-seen Baal, a series of scenes depicting the downfall of a benighted poet. Sherman's idea is to update the proceedings and turn the eponymous Baal into rock troubadour Clive running amok in brutal Brechtian strokes.

The free-falling Clive and sidekick Doc (Vincent D'Onofrio, with head shaved and feeling free to embroider on his disturbed Law & Order: Criminal Intent detective, Robert "Bobby" Goren) pass through several sequences that relentlessly involve life's down-trodden.

Having sung his song, Clive immediately antagonizes an entertainment executive (the more-than-ready Brooks Ashmanskas in the first of many roles), who unceremoniously tears up a lucrative contract in Clive's face. Whereupon, Clive comes into increasingly less rewarding contact with sharp operators, women of varying low degrees, a murder, an insane asylum, you-name-it-if-it's-depressing-and/or-anarchic.

The problem with Sherman's version -- perhaps with Brecht's as well -- is that there's no momentum to the succession of scenes. Rather, they merely become repetitive and pointlessly nihilistic. Worse, the accumulation of seedy locales serves as encouragement for Hawke, D'Onofrio, Ashmanskas and six others (the usually superb Zoe Kazan, among them) to wallow not in characters but in caricatures.

This is particularly disturbing with Hawke, normally one of the City's most accomplished stage figures. His recent appearance as the title malcontent in Anton Chekhov's Ivanov at CSC is one example of his powers. Another, his New Group Hurlyburly turn in 2005 was arguably the best performance by an actor that year. Possibly, as director this time, he couldn't see clearly enough what his leading man was doing.

Brecht, born in 1898, wrote Baal in 1918 when he was 20, though it wasn't produced until 1923. It's a young man's play -- the determinedly grim view of the world (not necessarily something the playwright ever completely abandoned) not surprising. Young men are habitually gratified at announcing to their elders how dreadful the world is, and in Germany's post-war period, Brecht had much to go on.

On the other hand, Sherman -- who was discovered via Woman & Wallace, written when he was 19 -- is no longer a kid, and this sort of pretentiously sophomoric material, possibly excusable in a young aspirant, is unbecoming in a playwright approaching middle age. The world of Sherman's play -- a program note says enigmatically "The 1990s, but you can also hear the future & the past" -- seems to emerge from nothing so much as a need for Sherman to pass himself off as important.

On the way out of the theater after the 90-minute, no-break piece, one dissatisfied customer was heard to remark, "If there'd been an intermission, no one would have come back." That about sums it up

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Although I never saw Moose Murders at any of its 13 previews or opening/closing-night performance, I once acted in a reading of the (in)famous Broadway flop. The occasion was the trial run for a series of flop-show readings a friend of mine thought might be fun to loose on theater-goers gluttonous for anything.

How'd it turn out? Not well -- in fact, so dreadfully that we decided to stop reading about a third of the way through the script. Moreover, my enterprising pal instantly scotched the entire plan.

So it would be reasonable for anyone to wonder why in the name of all that's holy I would want to see author Arthur Bicknell's work again. Curiosity, I'd have to say. Also, I did know I wouldn't be hearing what I heard that long ago star-crossed night, since promotional material infoed that Bicknell had seized the opportunity when contacted by The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective director Steven Carl McCasland to revise Moose Murders -- to revise it "shamelessly," as the program states.

In other words, I wouldn't be seeing the one-performance wonder as it was but as it's been--would "improved" be the right word? Well, perhaps it's been improved. I can't say, since the plot details to which I was privy at the aborted reading are vague in my mind.

I can say that if, indeed, it's been improved, it remains steadfastly woe-is-me. I know the setting remains the same -- the lobby of a lodge with a moose head on an upstage wall -- and, I think, many of the characters. (But don't hold me to it.) They include a local Indian (Orlando Iriarte) who has something to do with running the place, a pair of third-rate entertainers called Snooks and Howie Keene (Brittany Velotta, McCasland himself), chain-smoking Nurse Dagmar (Noelle Stewart) and the Holloways Hedda, Gay, Stinky, Sidney (Anna Kirkland, Caroline Rosenblum, Jordan Tierney, Dennis DelBene) and loving couple Nelson Fay and Lauraine Holloway Fay (Cory Boughton, Ali Bernstein).

Caught in a storm that keeps them from leaving the inhospitable outpost, they agree -- after much idle chatter -- to play a murder game. Does it go awry? What do you think? And when the lights mysteriously go off and then bump up, the moose head is gone. Needless to say, there's no question that the game will result in at least one corpse.

When it did, however, and the first act finally came to an end, I did what the moose head did -- disappeared. So I never discovered where the god-forsaken moose head went, nor did I find out whether there were more murders or if a murderer is identified.

I'm only left to report that in one extraordinary week I saw both Clive and Moose Murders and am prepared in both instances to cry, "Murder most foul!" Which was worse? Please don't ask.