I’m of two minds about Ethan Hawke as an artist. On the one hand, I have enormous admiration for his willingness – eagerness – to take on material that has, shall we say, relatively limited commercial appeal, simply because that work is important. For example, his recent star turn in Chekhov was as the lead in Ivanov – probably Chekhov’s least-known and least-liked major play – in a relatively small-scale production (though with absolutely top-drawer talent across the board) at CSC. On the other hand, there’s sometimes a cloying quality to his performances that puts me off. Occasionally it works perfectly with the role, but too often it takes me out of it, makes me aware that I am watching Ethan Hawke, and that he wants something from me.

So I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Hawke in Clive, a new play by Jonathan Marc Sherman based on the early Brecht drama, Baal. Intrigued because the distancing I sometimes feel when watching Hawke is pretty much the opposite of the distancing that Brecht aimed at, and intrigued as well because Brecht’s hero is so thoroughly nasty a piece of work, I was curious how Hawke, with his puppy-like need for affection, would play him. And, of course, I was curious how Sherman would update the play – which I had heard of, but never seen, and which had never particularly been on my bucket list. After all, the cliche of the angry young poet spitting in the face of society has pretty much played out to exhaustion by now, hasn’t it?

For me, that turned out to be the point of the play.

Clive is set vaguely in 1990s New York, instead of Germany in 1918, and instead of a young poet, we have an established singer-songwriter. The context, in other words, has shifted radically. Where Brecht wrote his anti-hero in the immediate aftermath of World War I, Clive is set in the immediate aftermath of . . . nothing much. The rock-and-roll demimonde has been in existence for quite some time at the point the play takes place, and it’s been decades since musical raging against the machine was first revealed to be a valuable commodity for exchange. How, in this world, can you be an anti-hero? So, you refuse to sign the record contract. You drink to excess, snort and inject various substances. You seduce a virgin, rape a teenage girl, impregnate and abandon your purported girlfriend – even murder your only friend. Hasn’t it all been done already? And, you know, more authentically, back in the 1970s? What, exactly, are you rebelling against?

Setting Clive when and where Sherman does effectively turns the play from a story with an anti-hero, to a story about a guy trying to play an anti-hero – trying to wring some last juice out of a long-exhausted pose of comprehensive opposition. Instead of spitting in the face of bourgeois society, he’s just one of many swaggering seducers, one of many literally faceless junkies.

Which makes this one of those rare perfect roles for Hawke, because he’s been playing a cuddly anti-hero his whole career. There’s nothing cuddly about Clive, but there’s something winning about watching Ethan Hawke try to find some hook for empathy in Clive’s willful and unmotivated self-destruction. He looks exhausted much of the time, and his singing declines over the course of the play from artily hoarse to incoherent – but this, again, entirely suits the play if we treat it as a commentary on Baal rather than an updating thereof.

On the surface, Clive felt to me more like a cross between Wedekind’s Lulu plays and Shepard’s Tooth of Crime than it does like Brecht. But Brecht might have appreciated the way in which the play alienates us from the sentiments that animated his early drama, and make us realize that in the context of the cultural contradictions of late capitalism, Baal is no longer a political play.

Of course, alienation can be tedious, but that doesn’t turn out to be a problem in this production, because Sherman and Hawke – in his other role as director – have devised a variety of ways to keep us amused. One delightful distraction is the musical set, designed by GAINES, a collection of doors embedded with a variety of found objects tuned to become musical instruments. A second is Vincent D’Onofrio, as Clive’s only friend, partner in crime and ultimate victim, Doc. D’Onofrio’s line readings and mannerisms are both startling and consistently funny – one senses, by the end, that Clive had to kill him more out of envy that he was a more memorable character than he had managed to become than for any other reason.

The third is the rest of the ensemble – from Aaron Krohn to Zoe Kazan to the playwright, Mr. Sherman – who create a whirlwind of characters through whose lives Clive passes. I remember particularly Brooks Ashmanskas’s soggy barfly, Krohn’s swishy waiter and Kazan’s various incarnations as seduced and abandoned lovers – and Sherman’s junkie corpse who, dead, feels more alive than the exhausted Clive does at many points. Which makes sense: a corpse has nothing to prove; he can just be. Or, you know, not.