Alex, the sadistic, Beethoven-loving juvenile delinquent at the center of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novel and Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, has returned, this time Off-Broadway, as sexy young British actor Jonno Davies. He stars in an all-male version of A Clockwork Orange that is less a conventional stage play than a high-voltage homoerotic dance drama. Think Jets and Sharks from West Side Story, except more muscular, and occasionally bare-chested.
Burgess’ tale of a near future with violent crime and vicious punishment is presented as seductive, stylized physical theater – never less than watchable, thanks to some thrilling choreography and to its graceful, hunky nine-member cast.
With this approach, director Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s production, which originated in Great Britain and has toured from Singapore to Norway for years, offers a solution to the challenge that would face any stage adaptation.
In the Burgess novel, Alex and his pals speak in “Nadstad,” which Alex’s parole officer Deltoid describes as “your wretched teen like gang-slang vernacular.” So, for example, Alex tells his gang to get ready for the next rampage of the night by saying: “We proceed, under the like leadership of your droog Alex, to the next veshch of the nochy.”
More production photos as NewYorkTheater.me
Burgess was (among many other intellectual pursuits) a linguist, and there’s a certain delight when reading his made-up language on the page – which is not matched when listening to it spoken aloud. Spencer-Jones has decided to keep the language for the stage — indeed Burgess is credited as the playwright – but the effect (aided by the already thick English accents of the performers, even among the Americans in the cast) is to force a shift in audience attention and emphasis from the dialogue to the physical movement, often accompanied by a pop score featuring David Bowie, Muse and electro versions of Ludwig Van.
The author’s sly morality tale is still there for the diligent theatergoer, the story of ultraviolent Alex, a menace to society, who becomes menaced by society. Imprisoned for a senseless gang murder, Alex volunteers for an experimental program of aversion therapy, which seeks to cure him of his ugly impulses, with the promise of an early release from his sentence. A medical team gives him a drug that makes him nauseated, while he’s forced to watch videos of extreme violence and degradation (videos that, unlike the current Broadway production of 1984, we the audience are not also forced to watch; they are off-stage.) The videos are set to a score by Beethoven, so Alex has also been inadvertently conditioned to be sickened by the music he once loved. Alex is released from jail early, unable to defend himself, turned from a villain to a serial victim, in a world where police are more thuggish than teenager gangs.
What is the lesson here? A member of the medical team, Dr. Brodsky (Brian Lee Huynh), says: “If mankind is to be saved, science must take over. Science must dig its way into the human brain, crushing the instinct of aggression.”
The chaplain (Timothy Sekk), by contrast, sees evil in this denial of free will: “Is a man who chooses to be bad in some ways better than a man who is forced to be good?”
To his credit, Burgess offers no pat answers, and lets no one off the hook, not even himself. His novel was reportedly inspired by an attack on his first wife, the author himself thus being the obvious model for the lefty do-gooder writer in the story, Frank Alexander (Huyhn again, another one of the actor’s nine roles.) Frank sees Alex as a victim of an uncaring society, and champions him as a political move against the government in power – until Frank realizes that it was Alex who led the hooligans that attacked him and his partner.
In the novel and the movie, Alex and his droogs rape Frank’s wife (in the movie memorably while singing “Singin’ in the Rain.”) But in the play, Alex murders Frank’s boyfriend.
The presence of gay characters in this stage adaptation is initially somewhat masked (or muddled) by the fact that all the actors except Jonno Davies portray up to ten characters apiece, male and female. In keeping with the minimal design of the production, actors momentarily playing female characters get at most a single accessory (a scarf, an apron) to indicate their sudden gender switch. So it can be unclear when Alex kisses or sexually abuses a character, whether the character is supposed to be female or male. Eventually Alex’s sexual orientation is spelled out, and, if it’s never the main point of the play, it takes advantage of such current events as the recent resurgence of debate over “gay conversion therapy,” to heighten A Clockwork Orange’s relevance.
With the production’s emphasis on superbly-coordinated ensemble dancing, it would be difficult to single out individual performances. This is true even though the cast includes such New York favorites as Matt Doyle, fresh from his acclaimed performance in Sweeney Todd, with a track record that includes starring roles on Broadway in Spring Awakening, War Horse, and Book of Mormon. He, like the rest of the cast, deserves kudos for being of high energy and in great shape, and blending together so well. But as Alex, Jonno Davies, making his New York stage debut, stands out, just as his character stands out – riveting in his rapid-fire transitions from charm to swagger to ruthlessness to self-pity to straight-faced sarcasm to – can it be? – a semblance of peaceable maturity…all the while exhibiting the energy and stamina of an Olympic athlete , and, perhaps not incidentally, the physique of a world-class bodybuilder.
A Clockwork Orange is on stage at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street, between 8th & 9th Avenues, New York, N.Y. 10019) through January 6, 2018.
Tickets and details
A Clockwork Orange . Written by Anthony Burgess, directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones . Lighting design by James Baggaley, sound design by Emma Will, costume consultant Jennifer A. Jacob . Cast: Jonno Davies as Alex; Matt Doyle as Georgie; Sean Patrick Higgins as Dim; Brian Lee Huynh as Frank Alexander / Dr Brodsky; Misha Osherovich as Pete; Ashley Robinson as Minister / Old Woman; Timothy Sekk as Chaplain / Deltoid; Aleksander Varadian as Marty / Warder. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell