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A Clockwork Orange

New World Stages
340 W. 50th St., New York, NY 10019 40.76274 -73.98728
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Alexandra Spencer-Jones


Jonno Davies, Matt Doyle, Sean Patrick Higgins, Brian Lee Huynh, Timothy Sekk, Aleksander Varadian, Ashley Robinson, Jimmy Brooks, Misha Osherovich, Jordan Bondurant

Nearby Subway Stops

1 at 50th St.; C, E at 50th St.; N, Q, R at 49th St.; B, D, E at Seventh Ave.

Official Website

Thru 1/6/18 Mon, Wed-Sat, 8pm; Sat, 2pm; Sun, 3pm, 7:30pm


How do we look at the Other who seems monstrous? Well, sometimes a story pins our eyes open and won’t let us blink. By now, the world knows the wily, vicious Alex DeLarge quite well, be it through Anthony Burgess’s novel or through the can’t-unsee-it performance of Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film (which, at the time of its release, joined Midnight Cowboy as the second movie in history to receive a Best Picture nomination despite its X rating).

Alex, our “humble narrator,” speaks in a salty teenage patois of Russian and English slang called nadsat and spends his nights drinking drug-laced milk, hanging with his gang of “droogs,” and conducting a brutal reign of terror over the unspecified British dystopia where he resides. Now he struts into New World Stages in the overwhelmingly ripped person of Jonno Davies, who led the cast of this production’s recent London run (a friend of mine described his shoulders as “two baby heads”).

In fact, the majority of the all-male cast of this Clockwork Orange possess physiques that most human mortals (Malcolm McDowell among us) could never hope to compete with. The actors need the muscle: Alexandra Spencer-Jones — who worked on the adaptation as well as directing Clockwork — has envisioned an athletic, highly choreographed world for Alex and his droogs. The ultraviolence they perpetrate plays out in the first third of the production as a kind of extended ballet of brutality. We witness a fight with a rival gang, the attack of a couple on the street (including a rape), and a home invasion that results in the murder of an old woman, all through a series of rhythmic, physically impressive quasi-dances by this super-shredded ensemble.

The result — both of the choreography and of the ensemble themselves — is to render all this violence shockingly unshocking. First, because the movement is so crisp, so crafted, and so regular, it’s impossible to feel the horror of what we know is actually happening. Long sequences occur in time to throbbing, often contemporary music, with nearly every jab, punch, and kick executed as if to the tick of a metronome (and the heart-stopping power of Beethoven, which dominates many scenes in the film, is woefully underused here). The performers eviscerate, molest, and pummel each other, but out in the audience, our guts are quite safe from any real emotional punch. There’s something overly sleek, almost glib about the choreography: Should we really be allowed to witness a gang rape without ever feeling revolted or afraid?

The gloss and presentational tone turn the story’s danger intellectual rather than visceral, and something else about Clockwork’s world starts to feel not quite right as we gaze at a stage entirely full of handsome young men. Spencer-Jones is clearly attempting to blur the lines around Alex’s sexual violence. She’s changed the character he and his droogs rape from the wife of the author F. Alexander into his husband, and she inserts an icky moment of Alex molesting one of his own droogs into a scenic transition.

But simply playing up the homoeroticism doesn’t change what A Clockwork Orange’s ultraviolence is about. In Alex’s world, hypermaleness rules while femaleness and queerness are viciously subjugated. Even in its dystopian extremes, such a world feels unsettlingly close enough to our own to merit exploring. Yet somehow, in a recent interview, Spencer-Jones admits, “Gender for me doesn’t mean that much in the piece.” She speculates that she’d be excited to do the play again in the future with an all-female cast. That might solve some Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion issues, but it wouldn’t alter the fact that Clockwork takes place in a poisonous patriarchy (for comparison, see Riane Konc’s hilarious send-up of an in-the-works remake of Lord of the Flies: there’s no way these characters are women). We are — and need to be — talking about gender and violence right now, and it feels evasive, perhaps even a little irresponsible, to approach A Clockwork Orange while ducking that. The play owes a present-day audience a bit more than some rock-and-roll choreography and a fallback on “freedom of choice” as the issue at the heart of the piece. That’s an easy, broad concept to rally behind without a more nuanced consideration of a whole host of other problems, including what creates a boy like Alex in the first place.

It doesn’t help that, as Alex, Jonno Davies starts strong — he almost sings his opening lines, to thrilling and creepy effect — but then, as the character is put through the wringer, he becomes a bit unvarying. He throws his body around with utter abandon, but the character requires emotional acrobatics as well, and those muscles, at least, seem a little underdeveloped. The standout performances are by Sean Patrick Higgins as Dim — the dense, brutish enforcer among Alex’s droogs and the one who ends up betraying him — and Ashley Robinson as the Minister of the Interior (or “Inferior,” as Alex says). In entirely different ways, Robinson’s wheedling, bullying politician and Higgins’s thick-skulled raging bull are the characters that actually feel dangerous. And in a play that aims to bring us face-to-face with some of the ugliest, cruelest parts of ourselves, it was a welcome thing to finally feel a little bit afraid.