Has there ever been an age more self-obsessed — or selfie-obsessed — than ours? We tweet our morning coffee, Facebook our commute, Instagram our lunch, and then blog, vlog, and Vine far into the night. But two plays — one new, one old — suggest that identities, however well-documented, are dodgy, devious, slipperier than a sack of banana peels loosed on an ice rink.
I Call My Brothers, Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s follow-up to the bracing Invasion!, centers on Amor (Damon Owlia), a seemingly feckless Arab youth. But as in Invasion!, in which one man’s name becomes a noun, a verb, a joke, a curse, and a threat, Khemiri continually destabilizes our hero. As he chats to a friend, a cousin, his dead grandmother, Amor seems little more than a vaguely asocial geek. Sure, he knows a surprising amount about chemistry, but he would never detonate a car bomb.
Yet it’s a more dangerous Amor who describes stabbing a policeman and unleashes invective on an animal-rights worker whom he threatens to shoot like a dog and shave like a mink. But just when we might begin to tremble, the campaigner recognizes him: “You were that science nerd who stalked a chick till she moved away.” Amor hangs up, ashamed.
Though less engaging than Invasion!, Brothers again announces Khemiri’s shrewd, inventive stagecraft. A simpler play might hinge on Amor’s guilt, but Khemiri’s drama, directed by Erica Schmidt for the Play Company, has more complicated concerns. Has Amor turned to extremism? Or do we wrongly suspect him because of his beard, his clothes, that worryingly heavy backpack? Will he become a terrorist just to satisfy our perception? Even Amor may not know. “I caught sight of an extremely suspicious individual,” he says toward the play’s end. “It was my reflection.”
Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s a Man also concerns a hero with a less than sturdy sense of self. This 1926 parable explores the dehumanizing effects of war. Set in colonial India, it concerns the transformation of Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier) from affable porter to remorseless machine gunner. When a trio of soldiers lose their fourth in a raid on a temple, they dragoon poor Galy Gay. Eventually they force him to believe that Galy Gay has died and that he is their honored comrade Jeraiah Jip.
The script is more obvious than some of Brecht’s later works, which Brian Kulick’s long, loud, and slow production only emphasizes. At a preview, accents and lines deserted the cast. Even the scenery rebelled. Duncan Sheik’s sitar-accented songs, while pleasant, only delayed the denouement. The show even dulled the inestimable charms of Justin Vivian Bond, as the lusty Widow Begbick, and Stephen Spinella, as Bloody Five, a military commander with a singularly gory approach to abstinence.
In the final scene, the original Jeraiah Jip (Andrew Weems) attempts to reclaim his identity. Galy Gay won’t allow it, but he does offer the man a set of surplus papers. “It’s important to have something on you in black-and-white,” he says affably. “These days they are always trying to take your name away, and I know what a name is worth.” That’s very nice to say, but these plays suggest that the worth of a name, a man, a life isn’t much at all.