It’s been years since I read A Clockwork Orange (which, like many, I tracked down after seeing the 1971 film), but I don’t recall a chapter devoted to Alex’s gym routine: Nadsat-sprinkled litanies of back squats, hamstring curls, or dead lifts to build bolshy great delts and quads. And yet here’s sweaty and bulging Alex (Jonno Davies) — along with his ultraviolent droogs Pete (Misha Osherovich), Georgie (Matt Doyle), and Dim (Sean Patrick Higgins) — looking like they just finished half an hour with the kettlebells. Or a gay porno shoot. Maybe both? The plot of A Clockwork Orange hinges on behavioral modification through visual stimuli, but I don’t think hairless, gyrating muscle-boys is quite what Anthony Burgess or Stanley Kubrick had in mind.
Blame it on director Alexandra Spencer-Jones, who uses Burgess’s Nabokovian fable about free will and state control as an excuse to have cute guys whip off their tank tops and dance-fight. If you already know the story (the script is based on Burgess’s 1987 adaptation with songs), you’re in for a long ninety minutes of cartoon mugging and cheesy, choreographed rapes and rumbles. In bleak future England, hoodlum Alex goes on nightly rampages with his goons, spouting their Russo-Anglo-Elizabethan argot — until he’s nabbed by the police for murder. Jail follows, then Alex agrees to a radical medical procedure that leaves him reeling with nausea at the very thought of sex or violence. Which is better, Burgess’s authorial proxies ask: a society in which one chooses between good and bad, or one in which we’re all law-abiding cantaloupes?
That’s still a lively debate, but don’t expect to enjoy it at New World Stages. Dialogue is not so much spoken as sneered and shouted, and sound cues are used as blunt dramaturgical weapons. Just as you’re musing that the whole sorry thing looks like an Eighties MTV video, a board operator blasts “Relax” from the speakers. (The height of literal-minded tackiness comes in a druggy dance-dream sequence, with Alex chomping on a real orange.) The homoerotic, punk-lite sensibility lies somewhere at the intersection of Magic Mike, “Satan’s Alley” from Staying Alive, and Matthew Bourne’s undergraduate thesis.
There are talented performers twitching inside this mechanical lemon. Doyle, an ardent Anthony in the pie-shop Sweeney Todd last year, labors to give Georgie shades of doubt and damage. Higgins nearly pops a vein as the steroidal oaf Dim and later barrels in the opposite direction, simmering sinisterly as a boarder who supplants Alex in his own family home. And, as our choirboy sociopath Alex, Davies is ultra-buff and baby-faced, a disconcerting combination that helps to distract from his pouty, one-note rendition. Fewer BDSM clichés and better acting in supporting roles would have made the show feel less like a camped-up ethics lecture and more like the journey of a soul. Burgess later critiqued his albatross of a bestseller as “too didactic to be artistic.” Here, Spencer-Jones’s “edgy” theatrics are too calisthenic to be organic.
Nevertheless, the original production drew praise when it premiered in 2012 at London’s Soho Theatre. Maybe with a local cast less ripped and better trained, there was nuance to the characterizations, greater music and poetic bite to Burgess’s jouncing, slashing slang. But the performance vocabulary on view here is resolutely shallow and hermetic. A generous viewer might suggest that the male pulchritude and crotch grabbing is there to make violence and male sexual aggression pornographically appealing in order to critique it. Or maybe Spencer-Jones and her producers simply want to have their beefcake and eat it, too.