01/31/2014 01:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stage Door: A Man's A Man, Outside Mullingar


Man's capacity for deceit and violence is never-ending. But can society or circumstance alter a man's character? In Brecht's 1926 farcical play A Man's A Man, now off-Broadway at the CSC, the answer is an unequivocal yes. His story, set in British-ruled India, posits a gentle man, Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier), transformed into a fighting machine.

Brecht's trademarks -- narrating the action to the audience, breaking the fourth wall -- begin with this work; so do his concerns about the nature of the individual in the face of a cruel society. Three British soldiers, in an age of militarism and colonial arrogance, get into trouble. To escape the wrath of their commander Bloody Five (Stephen Spinella), they hoodwink Galy Gay, via nasty mind games, into surrendering his identity. But does altering a man's role also mean forfeiting his personal beliefs?

Fear and crisis can often force us to surrender long-held notions of individuality and morality. But Brecht's larger critique of a world that justifies cruelty in the name of specious ideologies or selfish ends, speaks to politics in any age.

En route, Galy Gay meets an assortment of dubious characters: the profiteer Widow Begbick (Justin Vivian Bond), a quartet of soldiers (Steven Sybell, Martin Moran, Andrew Weems, Jason Babinsky) and Mr. Wang (Ching Valdes-Aran). This conniving rogues gallery, alongside Bloody Five, represent our baser instincts and set the stage for future horrors.

A smart production, set among orange oil drums, features a sharp cast, perfect lighting and sound design by Justin Townsend and Matt Kraus, respectively, and original music by Duncan Sheik. A Man's A Man is a rare opportunity to see early Brecht deftly presented.

While Brecht addresses the macro, John Patrick Shanley, who won the Tony for writing Doubt and the Oscar for his screenplay of Moonstruck, focuses on the micro. He has scored a quiet triumph in Outside Mullingar at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Set in rural Ireland, the four-hander captures the poetry, humor and emotional pain of country folk. (It's helped by a realistic John Lee Beatty set and Mark McCullough's evocative lighting.) Two farming neighbors, Anthony (Brian F. O'Byrne) and Rosemary (Debra Messing), have known each other since childhood. He is prone to long silences, enveloped in emotional isolation. Anthony's sole focus is his farm, which his ill father Tony (Peter Maloney) has yet to bequeath him.

Rosemary, a nearby beauty, doesn't lack for suitors. But her commitment, like Anthony's, is to her legacy. While her mother (Dearbhla Molloy) and Tony battle over a disputed plot of land, their children, misfits of a sort, play out their own tortured drama from afar.

Outside Mullingar explores unexpressed desire, the pitfalls of solitude and the odd twists of fate. Communication is disastrous here; the sorrows of the heart are only realized in dire circumstances. Indeed, one of Shanley's points is that Anthony and Rosemary don't begin to live until their parents die.

The story's simplicity underscores the power and pain of silence, ably illustrated by the wonderfully sympathetic O'Byrne, whose body language speaks volumes. And Messing, known for her comedic abilities in Will & Grace, delivers a strong performance, even sporting an Irish brogue. With solid shows by Molloy and Maloney, Outside Mulligar touches the heart.

A Man's A Man Photo: Richard Termine