Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange has developed a life of its own. It doesn’t have the worldwide instant-recognition factor of a Wizard of Oz or a Mickey Mouse, but the opening image of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex deLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film is etched in the consciousness of anyone who’s even tangentially encountered the film: chin tucked, eyes leering under the brim of his bowler hat, mouth an inscrutable half-simper, flamboyant fake eyelashes ringing his right eye. No company Halloween party is complete without a Brad or a Dave in deLarge drag. The latest in a long line of theatrical adaptations of A Clockwork Orange, which opened this week at New World Stages, both banks on and challenges this brand awareness, refining the narrative into a piquant, overheated slab of physical theater about the roots of white violence that is part male revue, part alt-rock dream ballet.
The familiar, casually cruel narrative beats are all there: gang fights, homeless abuse, rape, home invasion, predatory social workers, invasive government, the infamous “eye” scene. But plot is the last thing this adaptation is interested in. The play makes as much clear in its opening minutes, racing from scene to scene with a mechanical efficiency. What matters is the bottomless, virulent masculine energy with which Alex (Jonno Davies) leads his pack of psychopathic teenage “droogs”: Georgie (Matt Doyle), Pete (Misha Osherovich), and Dim (Sean Patrick Higgins). The whole production is turned up to 11 to amplify this energy, underscoring the pandemonium with Muse, Placebo, Bowie, and of course, Beethoven. If it ultimately proves stultifying, it can also be mesmerizing. The Aryan quartet tear through their world with a rapacity verging on the erotic; they fight, fuck, and kill with the entitled euphoria of children, which is, of course, what they are.
You’d hardly be able to tell that by looking at them, though. Avengers-only need apply to be a part of this nine-member all-male troupe; it’s impossible to watch all these perfectly sculpted bodies wreak mayhem and not: a) feel a little bad about yourself and b) wonder if they might be more pleasant if they just ingested a carb once in a while.
Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s decision to populate the play with Adonises is this production’s canniest move, in fact. The Western painting and sculpture traditions that have so often turned women into passive, demure, sexualized objects have done the opposite for men, making of them virile, demigod-like totems (think of Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina). Spencer-Jones’s production dares us to indulge this tendency and worship these delinquents for their bodies alone. Indeed, The New York Times walked right into this trap last week, publishing a tone-deaf article about the cast’s fitness regimen. Even this review couldn’t get by without talking about it. This connection becomes explicit when Alex passes out after being injected with chemicals in prison, his right arm dangling. He could be either Christ in a Pietá or Marat in Jacques-Louis David’s famous 1793 painting, both made legendary by death, both "white" saviors.
Like the film, A Clockwork Orange can’t quite figure out how to stage violence without also celebrating it. The point of the whole affair is, of course, that violence is fun. It feels good, which is why it has always been ineluctable and always will be. Yet the play’s concert vibe veers too often into celebration; rape, murder and torture become party games presented for the audience’s delectation. There are pungent points about free will and entertainment to be made there, but this version of the story comes on with all the subtlety of a disco wrecking ball.
Thank Bog for Jonno Davies, then. His performance is a master class in total performance control. Not a hair or a gesture is out of place. Every kick, lunge, and line reading is a study of terrifying precision; in his world, evil isn’t banal, it’s superhuman. The audience isn't privy to Alex’s thoughts as they are with the book or movie, which makes his insouciant sadism all the more unsettling. When he finally addresses us directly, in a nod to the novel’s original ending, excised from the American publication and, therefore, Kubrick’s film, he paints a picture of maturity and growth. He has found love, he says, and moved on from his vicious ways. But the glint is still there; Alex is hard-wired for violence, and the corrupt and fallible world has given him little reason to reform. With a new band of mindless droogs and a tiki torch, he'd have felt right at home in Charlottesville.
A Clockwork Orange runs through Jan. 6 at New World Stages (340 W. 50th St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday, and at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call 212-239-6200 or visit aclockworkorangeplay.com.