NEW YORK—Bertolt Brecht shines a spotlight on the inherit inhumanity people have for one another in his A Man’s a Man, a satire on the horrors of war. He shows how individuality and identity can be bought, sold, and traded at the drop of a hat.
The work, translated here by Gerhard Nellhaus, is presented by Classic Stage Company.
In 1925 India, the British Army is waiting for the call to war, though just who they’ll be fighting is somewhat irrelevant. In the meantime, soldiers pass the time getting into whatever mischief they can, a reason they’re not trusted by the locals.
When a four-man army machine gun unit consisting of Polly Baker (Jason Babinsky), Jesse Mahoney (Steven Skybell), Jeraiah Jip (Andrew Weems), and Uriah Shelley (Martin Moran) break into a local pagoda and steal the money box, Jip becomes injured.
The injury leaves parts of his hair and scalp behind, which the authorities use to trace the perpetrators. While hiding Jip until he recovers is easy enough, the remaining men must also find a replacement for him so their own involvement in the crime won’t be discovered.
The answer comes in the form of one Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier), an Irish porter. The men cajole, bribe, and finally conscript him to take Jip’s place.
At first somewhat hesitant to go along with the soldiers, Gay quickly lets himself be seduced by their offers of free drinks and cigars, as well as the somewhat exaggerated stories of the easy life those in the Army enjoy.
Eventually Gay is drawn in too deep to back out, and what was initially a game to him becomes a deadly serious business as his very identity begins to be stripped away.
The title of the play can be somewhat misleading. It does not so much note the individuality of a particular person but rather how one person can quickly become interchangeable with another. This is something both Gay and the returning Jip learn to their sorrow.
The play’s initial light tone shifts to a darker hue at this point and delivers a crushing message about the ultimate disposability of the common man.
Another theme is the disregard people have for others, as members of different races and class status willingly deceive whomever they can and wherever any hint of nonconformity seems a weakness.
An example of the latter point is evident in Bloody Five (Stephen Spinella), an Army sergeant who suffers bouts of sentimentality whenever it starts to rain. The play also offers a poke at religion with a rather wry lesson on how deities are created and the willingness of the masses to believe what those in control tell them about said gods.
The story itself is presented well enough, with the songs by Duncan Sheik fitting in nicely, if not all that memorably. The one exception is the title tune, which is delivered in perfect unison by the company.
However, where the production runs into trouble is when the audience is continually spoon-fed plot points. It’s as if director Brian Kulick, whose work here is not as strong as it could be, didn’t trust those in attendance to figure out the material for themselves.
This attitude is also evident at the beginning of the play when the characters break the fourth wall—which occurs often in the show—saying the plot is incomprehensible when in actuality it’s not that hard to follow.
There are also some scenes that go on a bit too long, especially toward the end of the play.
Frazier does well as Gay, a man who goes from a contented individual (if one who’s a bit slow), to a confused and tormented soul, to one finally accepting and even embracing his new circumstances.
Justin Vivian Bond is very good as the Widow Begbick, a woman who runs a beer wagon, offering soldiers whatever services they require as long as there’s money in it for her. Bond also has a very nice singing voice.
Spinella makes a perfect Bloody Five, a character who changes from being a gung-ho and pompous type to an object of ridicule and pity.
The rest of the acting company does okay, although none of them stand out particularly.
Paul Steinberg’s set is imaginative, while Justin Townsend’s lighting plays a key role in setting the various scenes and atmosphere. Sound design by Matt Kraus is also quite effective.
Packing a strong message, this production of A Man’s a Man is relatively sturdy throughout and while certainly not perfect, still nicely delivers the goods.
Also in the cast are Allan K. Washington and Ching Valdes-Aran.
A Man’s a Man
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or classicstage.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Closes: Feb. 16
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.