Of the 1939 film Gunga Din, based on a Kipling poem set in British-colonial India, Bertolt Brecht wrote: “I was amused and touched because this utterly distorted account was an artistic success and considerable resources in talent and ingenuity had been applied in making it.” Considerable talent has also been applied to the Classic Stage Company production of Brecht’s 1925 play A Man’s A Man, also set in colonialist India. But I regret to say that I was neither much amused nor touched.
Why this staging, which uses a standard translation by Gerhard Nellhaus and incorporates new music by Duncan Sheik, misfires has something to do with the casting. Every member of the nine-person ensemble has shone onstage in New York at some point over the years. Yet none of them is able to summon and sustain the odd-comic tone that Brecht’s near-vaudeville project requires.
To be fair, greater natural comedians than these have been defeated by the material. Bill Murray, in a 1986 production, excelled at the clowning but struggled with the pathos. He was Brecht’s hero, Galy Gay, an ordinary man who has been conscripted into the army.
Gibson Frazier portrays Gay in this production, and he is a reverse Murray: very affecting in the character’s quieter moments, working too hard elsewhere to deliver the laughs. He and his onstage colleagues are not helped by the staging (from the usually inspired Brian Kulick), which tends to lag during the scene changes.
The main scenic element is a heap of orange oil drums. They hammer home Brecht’s point that wars are usually conducted to capture natural resources. As for the plot, Brecht has a character announce early on that it is “incomprehensible”. Not so: Gay is pressed early on by three members of a gunnery regiment to pass for a rule-flouting comrade, and in a series of mild adventures he is transformed into a soldier.
The musical numbers enliven the drama. Sheik, whose adaptation of American Psycho is currently a hit in London, works in military-drinking-song and tinged-with-Weill modes here, with the occasional echo of his work on Spring Awakening. Stephen Spinella, who lit up the latter on Broadway, brings panache to the role of Bloody Five in A Man’s a Man. And Justin Vivian Bond imbues Widow Begbick’s songs with smoky tones.