8-0123 Jonno Davies (center) and the cast of A Clockwork Orange (c) Caitlin McNaney
Credit: Caitlin McNaney

At times, watching the Off-Broadway production of A Clockwork Orange at New World Stages felt like watching Shakespeare: much of the dialogue is in “Nadsat,” the slang language Anthony Burgess invented in his 1962 novel of the same name. And so, the audience uses the clues of cadence and gesture to understand half-nonsense words before their rhythm becomes familiarized. Also like a classical Shakespearean show, the cast is entirely male — actors pull on skirts and high-pitched voices when female roles are necessary.

But if every Shakespeare show contained this play’s sheer density of shirtless, chiseled, grinding men, no high school senior would ever complain of boredom in English class again.

A Clockwork Orange, directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones, crackles with kinetic energy, punctuated by precise choreographed sequences set to the music of Queen, Muse, and, of course, some good old-fashioned Ludwig Van. The show is a faithful adaptation of Burgess’ novel, following teenage delinquent Alex DeLarge (Jonno Davies, reprising his role from the London production) and his gang of merry men as they rape and pillage and drink drug-spiked milk through near-future London before Alex is incarcerated and made to undergo a controversial brainwashing treatment to “cure” him of his violent sensibilities.

The set and the costumes are minimalist. When the actors are wearing shirts, they’re in black or white tank tops and contrasting suspenders. Their biceps are their primary accessories. It seems to be part of a conscious decision to distance this production from Kubrick’s famous 1971 film adaptation — there are no bold eyelashes or bowlers here. Instead, the look for Alex is a Richard Spencer-esque haircut, which contributes to the larger question necessary to ask when reviewing this show: is 2017 really the right time for a Clockwork Orange adaptation?

The ultraviolence depicted on stage is stylized and set to fun music; there are multiple rape scenes, one involving a broken bottle that still makes me involuntary flinch just to recall. No moment in this play is anywhere near as abjectly sinister as Alex singing “Singin’ in the Rain” in the Kubrick adaptation — the violence here is artfully composed and provides ample shock-horror, but without any emotional weight.

Although ostensibly A Clockwork Orange paints Alex as an antihero, the real villain — of both the novel and this production — is the totalitarian government who sees fit to do away with free will in order to curb a problem with crime. But that tension is never at the forefront of this production. Unlike the world conveyed through Kubrick’s abstract visuals, the minimalist set here doesn’t reveal anything about a totalitarian state; instead, you’re just watching a young man pantomime rape on an all-but empty stage and then made to watch that young man as the story’s hero and emotional anchor for the next 90 minutes.

Chances are, if you’re interested in seeing a stage adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, you know what you’re getting yourself into. This is a play that will raise your heart rate (for several reasons), but it left me uncertain whether it was celebrating or criticizing the testosterone-frenzy it depicts onstage. As a satire, I’m not entirely sure it succeeded, but it gave me plenty to talk about. B-