Time Stands Still for A Clockwork Orange and Street Gangs

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, A Clockwork Orange

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Anthony Burgess wrote the searing novel A Clockwork Orange in 1962 and his depiction of violent rogue street gangs terrified readers. The book was turned into an equally scary movie directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Malcolm McDowell ten years later and viewers cringed at the idea of renegade teens roving the streets. Now, nearly sixty years after the book’s publication, the story has been turned into a play.

A Clockwork Orange is a story from the past about the future and street gangs that has come full circle. The play is sensational, an absolutely electric production that shakes you to your core with terrific actors bringing to life a murderous gang of British thugs who consider violence good sport.

The hero, or anti-hero, of the play, that opened last night at the New World Stages, on W. 50th Street, in New York, is Alex, a huge, overly muscular gang leader with an odd verbal accent and quirky body movements. He is the talkative bully who runs a small street gang that preys on just about everyone. He and his “droogs” (gangsters) visit a popular “milk bar” where they drink milk laced with drugs and then cavort through the streets of England in a gorgeous, if frenetic, ballet that has a touch of West Side Story to it. They dance in a madhouse atmosphere and often to the thumping music of Ludwig van Beethoven. The composer of some of the world’s most beautiful music is the hero of the world’s most miserable gangsters. They beat up bystanders, rape women and intimidate everybody they meet.

The police finally catch up with them and toss Alex into prison for ten years. The obstinate droog leader, stuck behind bars, takes advantage of a new British prison program in which rough inmates take new drugs to make them abhor violence and never engage in it. Alex is then released with a big smile on his face to the cheers of all. What nobody has seemed to figure out, though, is how the victims of Alex’s old criminal life will react to the defanged street thug?

Will the experimental drugs work? Will Alex become a choir boy? Will others in London try to drag him back into the back alleys of street gang life? What will his beloved old droogies think of him now?

The irony of the book and Kubrick film, which earned a nomination for an Oscar for best picture and grossed nearly $100 million, about ten times its cost, is that the droogs that were predicted for many years into the future were here already, in both the U.S. and London, by the late 1970s. The Crips, Bloods and other street gangs thrived at first in Los Angeles, then New York, Chicago and throughout the nation. Today, there are over one million members of street gangs in the U.S. alone (nearly 700,000 of them in large cities). Their members are the modern “droogs.” The Bloods and Crips have been joined by MS-13, the Barrio 18, Clanton 14 and Border Brothers in Mexico and Central America. They were responsible for 14 murders a day in El Salvador in 2012 alone. They are responsible, police say, for over 6,000 murders in cities in the U.S. each year. Thanks to them, crime has become a problem in many places over the last two decades. In St. Louis, police say it has doubled and in Chicago gang violence has become an epidemic that is the subject of numerous television documentaries. There are dozens of national and local street gang police task forces which battle them.

In England, where A Clockwork Orange is set, modern street gangs have been a problem snice 1988, when a gang war broke out in Manchester. Anther spilled into city streets in Liverpool in 2008. Police estimate that London has 170 gangs, including some made up of immigrants from Bangladesh. Glasgow, Scotland, has at least 160 gangs.

A Clockwork Orange succeeds because of its chilling subject, its tough guy ballet dancers, pumping Beethoven music and taut plot, but it succeeds mostly because of the mercurial Alex, the leader of the gang, played with utter brilliance by Jonno Davis, who has played the role for several years in a London production. He is driven, he is anguished, he is witty, he is dominant. The whole play flies around him and he is its powerful driving force. Davis is joined by a number of droogs – Jimmy Brooks, Matt Doyle, Sean Patrick Higgins, Brian Lee Huynh, Misha Osherovich and Aleksander Varadian. Ashley Robinson plays a minister and Timothy Sekk plays Mr. Deltoid It is an all-male cast and several of the men play women (big mistake). The play is smartly directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones.

The play takes place on a nearly barren, eerie stage that serves as droog headquarters, the milk bar, a prison and a hospital. It is dark and menacing and nearly always filled with droogs with their chains, knives and smirks. These are guys who assume the world is theirs and so they strangle it without blinking an eye.

The memorable, vicious “droogs” of the 1962 story, as frightening as they were, are no match for the Crips, Bloods, MS-13 and other street gangs that hold court in America’s cities today (or England’s, either). Everything that you did not want to happen in the novel and movie has, and it is worse. Why couldn’t the police in England, Europe and the U.S. stop it?

This look back at a 1962 story of the future is an eyeopener. If all of these things took place already with the contemporary street gang “droogs” then what is next for all of us?

Worrisome, all right.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Glynis Henderson Productions, Ltd., Martian Entertainment LLC, others. Lighting: James Baggaley, Costumes: Jennifer A. Jacob, Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis, Original Music: Glenn Gregory, Berenice Scott, Ludwig Van Beethoven. The play is directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones. It runs through January 6.

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