For sure, the actors in the New World Stages presentation of A Clockwork Orange, transferred to New York from London, are all male and glisteningly muscular.
But it would be a mistake to think that Alexandra Spencer-Jones’ pumping, physical adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel (developed and presented by her Action to The Word company) is simply homoerotic and given a publicity-friendly gay sheen in its casting choice and ripped-flesh aesthetics.
Rather, it is a startlingly conceived, brave piece of physical theatre whose female characters are played by the male actors; moments signaled by the wearing an orange accessory. As women, the male actors still seem male with parodic female accoutrements (heels, high voices, swishing hips).
There are other moments when the violence and desire indisputably exists between men, and other times when the lines of gender and sexuality are as blurred as the tropes of social decency and deviancy Burgess was examining and satirizing. Rape, violence, and desire traverse all genders.
Jonno Davies as Alex DeLarge, the lead character played by Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 Academy Award-nominated adaptation, is the magnetic heart of the production. Here he is the broad-shouldered, muscular, almost Greek-statue sculpted leader of his gang of “droogs” (friends), all in thrall to “ultraviolence.”
More than once, with a wink, the Orange-uninitiated are told that the language being spoken by the young people on stage is the modish Nadsat, a form of Russian-infused English. The tone in which words are said, and even some of their formation, sound familiar, even if they come out like scrambled versions of those words.
The film was controversial because of its scenes of violence and sexual assault. Here, those fight scenes, conceived by Davies himself, are conducted without any physical punching and kicking and contact.
The stage isn’t big, which makes the general choreography, by Aleksander Varadian, that more impressive, especially when spiked milk and smashed glass are added to the carnival of choreographed brutality that Alex and his associates like Billy Boy (Jimmy Brooks) take such pleasure in. Ashley Robinson, playing a magnificently slithery Minister, wants to stamp out the chaos.
That nobody is struck in the play does take something away from the implied hideousness of the violence: it is spoken of and intimated, but the physical theatre of this Clockwork Orange gives the immediate reassurance that no harm will be done.
A more tangible frisson of violence and abuse comes when it is time for Alex’s deprogramming as a violent offender.
His torture and brainwashing will mean that he not only enjoys violence any more, but also his beloved Beethoven, whose music here is mixed up with original music composed by Heaven 17 frontman Glenn Gregory & Berenice Scott, with additional synth-led classics of the 1980s and songs by the likes of Davie Bowie, Placebo, Muse, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Davies graphically portrays Alex’s physical and psychological pain, and with it the unanswerable question of Burgess’ text: what kind of citizens does a society really want, with the answer to be found somewhere between the two poles of totally pliant and totally aggressive that Alex represents.
How should social control operate? What is Alex’s place, especially when he is rejected from home? You laugh at his occasionally benign mischief, are terrified by his propensity for violence, and pity his lack of personality when it is forcibly removed.
The disadvantage of a compact cast, no matter how talented, is that the story and characters become confusing—all the actors bar Davies play multiple characters, and the lack of specified setting leaves a little too much to the imagination.
Still, the cast conjure dramatic miracles from thin air. Sean Patrick Higgins is excellent as both Dim and later, Alex’s parents manipulative lodger. Timothy Sekk brings a clarity to the only morally resolute and good voice on stage, the Chaplain seeking a more restorative justice for Alex. Varadian has delicious fun playing the determined Dr. Branom, who is using Alex as his behavioral guinea pig. (All of the American actors do phenomenal British accents.)
You may debate afterwards what Burgess was ultimately suggesting--that violence is preferable to supine obedience, and what are the dictates of social order.
Despite the holes in the text and confusing characterization, there remains something electrifyingly watchable about this production. It is witty, menacing, and beautifully paced and mounted, with James Baggaley’s lighting design so effective it feels like an implicit part of the text.
There is more doubling up of actors and characters in Amy Herzog’s all-female Mary Jane, starring Carrie Coon (of The Leftovers, Fargo, and Gone Girl fame), which has just opened at New York Theatre Workshop and which was first performed at Yale Repertory Theatre in late April. Like A Clockwork Orange, it is just over 90 minutes with no intermission.
At the beginning we are in an apartment belonging to Coon’s title character, who is shooting the breeze with Ruthie (Brenda Wehle), her building manager. It’s a deceptively light scene, with Ruthie’s gruff practicality, and clear care for Mary Jane, concealing something else. Mary Jane has removed some bars from her apartment windows. That’s in contravention of the building’s rules, but her son likes to see the sky unobstructed she says.
The mystery, as it turns out, is that Mary Jane’s three-year-old son has a chronic, life-endangering illness, cerebral palsy. Everything in single parent Mary Jane’s life is pivoted around that. Significantly, we never see him. We see everything unfold in relation to his desperate situation.
Mary Jane seems supremely in control; her son’s illness has become her way of life, and in the first part of the play—set in her home—the struggles we watch are things she has already mastered. We see her as a master-player of the system, who can work because of a sympathetic boss while a retinue of carers attend to her son’s immediate needs.
When another mother, Brianne (Susan Pourfar) in a similar situation comes to visit to ask her advice, Mary Jane has it all down pat: the right pram, what she should ask for of doctors and specialists. The only carer she can rely on is the equally brisk and practical Sherry (Liza Colón-Zayas): they are both running a marathon like relay-racers.
For all her focus, Mary Jane’s son’s illness is also taking its toll. One night we see Mary Jane padding around the flat unable to sleep. And then a full-blown crisis unfolds when her son has a seizure.
Anyone who saw David Hyde Pierce’s A Life at Playwrights Horizons last year may get a sense of déjà vu at this point because suddenly the ceiling of the set lifts up, and the set’s constituent parts go into an origami-like rearrangement. Both shows share a director, Anne Kauffman, and a designer, Laura Jellinek.
From home we go to hospital, where Mary Jane agonizingly tries to remain optimistic as her son’s condition worsens. She encounters a doctor (Colón-Zayas), who tries to get her to see reality. She encounters an Orthodox mother (Pourfar), each challenged and comforted by the other, and she meets a Buddhist minister (Wehle), with whom she interrogates the application and limitations of belief and faith.
The excellent Coon shows us the quotidian business of trying to move moment to moment as options are taken away and positive vistas diminish. When Mary Jane’s fury explodes it is over the possibility—just because of administration and timing—that her son won’t see a music therapist (Danaya Esperanza).
Coon has a quixotic energy as Mary Jane, who can be in control, blasé, dry, and utterly desolate. Colón-Zayas embodies two kinds of caring professional: the empathic and the not-to-be-questioned. Pourfar captures one mother’s nervous desperation, and another’s well-worn fortitude, while Wehle, stealer of all scenes, appears as wise about faucets as she is about the human spirit.
Those who saw A Life will remember how much Kauffman relayed to the audience in silence and the sounds of everyday as Hyde Pierce’s character’s body lay dead and undiscovered in his apartment. Here, Coon in the hospital is isolated from another unseen real world she knows is outside, but—because of her son’s illness and the impact it has had on her life—she is becoming utterly divorced from.
Mary Jane is permanently primed for battle with experts and authorities at every moment. She is fighting for her child. There is no space for anything else.
Like A Clockwork Orange, Mary Jane also ends on an intriguing and ambivalent note, and one which could signal life-altering tragedy for Coon’s character and for her vulnerable son, or a moment of supreme enlightenment. Or maybe both. You sense she’ll carry on fighting.
A Clockwork Orange is at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, NYC (book tickets until January 6 here); Mary Jane is at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, NYC until October 15. Book tickets here.