A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is the new black-hearted play

Was this another way of celebrating WEST SIDE STORY’s 60th anniversary?

Last week, the venerable 1957 musical was much in the news, with two distinct celebrations taking place in town.

But there was yet another way of remembering the Laurents-Bernstein-Sondheim masterpiece. A play version of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE opened at New World Stages an avenue-and-a-half away from The Winter Garden, WEST SIDE’s original home, and one day shy of the musical’s diamond jubilee.

This play that Anthony Burgess adapted in 1987 from his 1962 novel can actually withstand comparisons to WEST SIDE STORY while also showing how far we’ve come.

Or is it how far we’ve sunk?

Both properties start out by introducing us to street gangs. But the Jets are toy balsa airplanes and the Sharks mere minnows compared to Alex DeLarge’s gang of mentally ill sadists. They’re crazier than today’s news.

Although Alex’s gang is dressed in black and the other is clad in white, costume designer Jennifer A. Jacobs is not going for standard symbolism; both groups are terrible.

From the title you won’t have a hard time guessing the other color in the show’s palette. There’s more black and orange on hand than you’ll find in either Princeton University or Baltimore Orioles souvenir shops.

Racism fuels the violence in WEST SIDE; here it’s gay bashing that makes the men walk proud. And yet afterward they aren’t above a (supposedly) brotherly kiss, are they?

(Odd how that works.)

After that moment of affection, they go out to rape someone – and not in a symbolic dance as the Jets had with Anita. For A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is, as you’d expect, far more hard-hitting than WEST SIDE could have ever dreamed of being in the Eisenhower years.

These actors don’t pretend to spit on each other; they SPIT. One masturbates while reading a book whose cover has a cross emblazoned on it. And just as we think, “Well, whatever turns you on,” we see that he has porn in there.

The Jets spoke an invented patois — “frabba-jabba,” “cracko-jacko” – that was pathetically namby-pamby. The intent was to short-circuit any slang becoming dated, yes, but to avoid profanity, too. Alex and his comrades have created their own language as well but they liberally use those famous four-letters words that start with F and C. Compare that to the Jet known as Action asking “Where the devil are they?” Is he a street punk or Henry Higgins?

WEST SIDE had choreography; CLOCKWORK has a Dance Captain, yes, but he’s billed below the position of Fight Captain. First things first, for brawling is much more on the minds of Alex and his gang of amoral thugs.

True, WEST SIDE was a musical and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE isn’t – at least not in this incarnation. (Believe it or not, there was a roundly panned musical version in London six years ago.) There is, however, plenty of music pervading the play although the song for which the property is most famous — “Singin’ in the Rain,” thanks to the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film adaptation — is conspicuously absent. Many other pieces of music, including a techno take on Beethoven, take up the slack.

The gang also lip-syncs and doo-wops a few pop tunes, too. These moments demonstrate that, all things being equal (which they never are), the boys would much prefer to be pop stars than thugs. (Guess arts education gets cut in England, too.)

The Jets and Sharks had to deal with insults from Lieutenant Shrank; A CLOCKWORK ORANGE shows us far less diplomatic lawmen. We’re talking genuine police brutality here which is hardly the worst fate in store for Alex. Burgess was out to indict our heartless medical and penal systems and did a mighty convincing job of it. Don’t look here for any optimism you might have for our uneducated youth or the people who are ostensibly there to help them.

The play does mercifully spare us the realism that the film doesn’t. Pungent lines aren’t avoided, though, including “From now on, music will make him vomit.” That’s something that we’ve never heard about WEST SIDE STORY — and never will.

Here in the precise theater where NAKED BOYS SINGING ran for years, we have semi-naked boys stinging. There are two sections of folding chairs on-stage left and right for those who really want to get cozy close to the see the guys’ veins protruding from under their skin – and more skin. Some will be mollified that Alex wears only tighty-whities when performing one of the play’s most disgusting moments.

Even Alex’s mother fails him — and is pretty matter-of-fact about it to boot. The lad’s evil past will always be thrown up to him for, as he’s told, “The law has a long, long memory.” What happens to his former fellow sadists makes for a big surprise.

When a character observes “Violence is sewn into our fabric” you might respond “Play, heal thyself” if not for Alexandra Spencer-Jones’ smart direction. She’s staged it in a purposely arch way to keep matters from becoming too real. You’ve heard of Story Theatre? Well, this is Horror Story Theatre.

Near show’s end comes the most shocking revelation of all: Alex is a mere seventeen. Jonno Davies doesn’t convince that he’s that young, but his extra years don’t stand in the way of his delivering a stunning performance. Davies shows what pure evil can do to a perpetrator and what the heart, mind and soul of a victim endures. The other eight actors superbly support him; it’s a dream of an ensemble in a nightmare of a show.

There’s one more contrast to be made between WEST SIDE STORY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. The former said that “Something’s coming, something good.” The latter has something always horrific occurring. It is only good in its execution – meaning both in its theatricality and its snuffing out a mind and soul.