'A Clockwork Orange': Theater Review

A Clockwork Orange - Sean Patrick Higgins, Matt Doyle, Misha Osherovich and Jonno Davies - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Caitlin McNaney
As disturbing as a Calvin Klein ad campaign.

The acclaimed British stage adaptation of Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel, the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's classic film, makes its off-Broadway debut.

Another week, another dystopian stage drama.

At least that's how it seems these days in the age of Trump. Although to be fair, A Clockwork Orange predates his presidency by more than a half-century. Anthony Burgess' novel was published in 1962 and adapted by Stanley Kubrick for his classic, highly controversial 1971 film. Burgess' own stage adaptation has now arrived on our shores after numerous productions in Blighty. It's playing at off-Broadway's New World Stages complex, and one can only hope that children and their parents heading to the Gazillion Bubble Show don't wander into the wrong auditorium by mistake.

Originally developed and presented by the aptly named Action to The Word theater company, this version of the tale concerning the ultra-violent teenager Alex deLarge (Jonno Davies) and his band of equally brutal "Droogs" stresses physicality far more than verbiage. In one way that comes as a relief, since the dialogue, including heavy doses of Burgess' Russian-influenced, made-up language "Nadsat" and rendered in thick Cockney accents, is hard to understand in any case.

But for those not familiar with the book or film, this production will often prove incomprehensible. Performed on a mostly bare stage and featuring a young, all-male cast — all but Davies playing multiple roles including women and older male authority figures — it relates the story in broad, abstract strokes, relying so much on stylized choreographed movement that it often resembles modern dance. The result is that the brutal violence, which includes Alex raping a fellow prisoner with a broken bottle, doesn't have much visceral impact. These Droogs look less eager to commit violent mayhem than to square off in a song-and-dance number with the Sharks or the Jets.

Then there's the distinct homoerotic aspect to the goings-on. The chiseled performers are so often fondling each other while in various states of undress that they seem to be auditioning for a Bruce Weber photo shoot. Davies' preening Alex (the character is supposed to be 15, but let's just say that the actor isn't likely to be carded anytime soon), in particular, is so swoon-worthy that you feel less terrified by him than eager to hear about his workout routine.

Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones attempts to heighten the intensity of the fast-paced and yet slow-moving proceedings with heavy doses of loud music, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" and, of course, rocking versions of Alex's beloved Beethoven (or, as he refers to the composer, "Ludwig van"). But lacking any emotional resonance that would make us care about the story or the characters, the purposely assaultive results are mostly enervating. And one of the most iconic scenes, when Alex's eyes are held open as he's forced to watch horrifically violent images as part of a mental reprogramming experiment, registers here with little impact compared to the movie version.   

The sheer energy of the performers as they go through their strenuous paces must be admired, and Davies, repeating his London stage success and making his U.S. theatrical debut, is so physically charismatic you can't take your eyes off him. When his Alex is "cured" and becomes a shell of his former himself toward the end of the story, you feel an uncomfortable sympathy that makes you appreciate the sly brilliance of Burgess' writing. It's too bad so little of it otherwise comes across here.

Venue: New World Stages, New York
Cast: Jonno Davies, Jordan Bondurant, Jimmy Brooks, Matt Doyle, Sean Patrick Higgins, Brian Lee Huynh, Misha Osherovich, Ashley Robinson, Timothy Sekk, Aleksander Varadian
Playwright: Anthony Burgess, based on his novel
Director: Alexandra Spencer-Jones
Lighting designer: James Baggaley
Sound designer: Emma Wilk
Costume coordinator: Jennifer A. Jacob
Music: Glenn Gregory, Berenice Scott
Presented by Glynis Henderson Productions, Martian Entertainment, Matthew Gregory for ABA U.K. and Ty R. Ashford