It may be freezing in New York, but inside Classic Stage Company, it's tropical. Plastic palm trees canopy the stage, the trunks made entirely out of large orange oil drums. This is set designer Paul Steinberg's vision of the British Raj circa 1925, as imagined by Bertolt Brecht in his play A Man's a Man. With an English translation by Gerhard Nellhaus (Brecht's original was written in German), this production features new music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening and last season's CSC production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle). Theater is usually very good at enlarging its subjects (in this case war and identity), offering a view from all sides in an effort to foster a richer discussion. Unfortunately, those oil drums are the harbingers of a disappointingly reductive production that's a little bit like being cornered at an alt-rock concert by a militantly anti-war lefty who insists "it's all about the oil, man."
First performed in 1926, Mann ist Mann was the earliest of Brecht's Berlin plays, written at the decadent height of the Weimar Republic under the influence of an urbane group of friends and collaborators. In watching A Man's a Man, one can almost hear a 28-year-old Brecht and his friends passionately discussing the travesty of British colonialism in India, a place few if any of them had ever been (certainly not Brecht). Indeed, the program notes the setting as, "an India that is suspiciously Rudyard Kipling-like." This exotic locale provides the backdrop for an even more unusual plot.
A Man's a Man is the story of Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier), an unfailingly doltish Irish porter living with his wife (Allan K. Washington) in Kilkoa (which is not a real place in India). One day after buying a cucumber, Gay comes across Jesse Mahoney (Steven Skybell), Uriah Shelley (Martin Moran), and Polly Baker (Jason Babinsky), three men from the machine-gun section of the eighth regiment of the British Army. Their fourth man, Jeraiah Jip (Andrew Weems) is hiding in a leather box outside a pagoda they just robbed for beer money. He's taking cover because he's missing a patch of hair and the men are sure this will reveal them as the thieves. The men ask Gay to pose as Jip for their roll call. They secure a uniform with the help of beer-wagon proprietress the Widow Begbick (Justin Vivian Bond). Meanwhile, Wang (Ching Valdes-Aran), the Pagoda's bonze, decides to make the lost money back by turning the real Jip into a new god. With the army about to march off to a new war in Tibet ("If they need cotton it'll be Tibet and if they need oil, it'll be Pamir," the real Jip cynically muses), the three men decide that maybe they should permanently make Gay the new Jip. After all, a man's a man.
Brecht was a brilliant playwright, but this play is not his finest. We're alerted to that fact in the show's opening moments when the actors warn, "Anyone who doesn't get the plot the first time around shouldn't worry. It's incomprehensible." Indeed, the story is riddled with holes big enough to drive a beer wagon through. The production uses Brecht's own "alienation technique" (in which the actors break out of character to directly address the audience) to comment on the flimsy dramaturgy: "Wang sings a song about the flow of things. A number that does absolutely nothing to advance our plot," Washington tells us before a song that does just that.
Of course, one can forgive an idealistic 28-year-old playwright for writing a sloppy play. After all, Brecht was not as interested in plot as he was in presenting big ideas on stage in an "epic" fashion, often to thrilling and mind-blowing effect. But that is why we cannot forgive him for writing a boring play like A Man's a Man. With the help of Sheik's dreamy, mellow, and often beautiful songs, this play set in a warzone creeps along at a sleepy pace, offering very few "aha" moments but plenty of time to think about your after-theater plans. It needn't be so long. In fact, Gabriel Berry's costumes (everyone starts in a military uniform) say more about the institutional devaluation of the individual (and the human desire to break free from institutions) than 135 minutes of Brechtian commentary ever could.