Though both plays overtly consider diseases of the mind, their presentation has everything to do with both the times in which they were staged and the ever-changing way Brook configures the relationships among director, actor, audience and text.
If the seething, unruly “Marat/Sade” laid the groundwork for much of the theater — indeed, the literature — of the ’60s, “The Man Who” perfectly captures Brook’s renunciation of that style and a seemingly inexorable move to minimalism, homing in on the essence of a text.
His triumphs were a 90-minute version of “Carmen” at the Vivian Beaumont a decade ago, along with “The Conference of the Birds” and, more recently, “The Mahabharata” in this theater, a dilapidated Brooklyn movie palace whose decrepitude has been stylishly retained and refurbished to replicate Brook’s Paris home base, Les Bouffes du Nord.
“The Man Who” is distilled from “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by neurologist-author Oliver Sacks (his book was the inspiration for the film “Awakenings”).
Sacks has a gift for humanizing the disorders that can make a teacher mistake a coat stand for a student, or a patient describe a familiar object in minute detail without being able to identify it.
Such stories of the breakdown between perception and understanding or expression seem like naturals for dramatic exploitation, as Arthur Kopit’s exquisite “Wings” proved.
With a gifted, international company of four actors and one musician, on a spartan set that includes two TV monitors and several white chairs and tables, Brook presents highlights from the Sacks case histories.
The style of acting is deliberately artless and quite affecting, as is the presentation.
The actors slip effortlessly between the roles of doctor and patient, while Mahmoud Tabrizi-Zadeh provides a discreet musical background on a number of stringed, wind and percussive instruments.
Some of the brief scenes — the entire work is delivered in less than two hours sans intermission — are clinical, and do little to embellish the book; they shortchange Sacks’ achievement, which was to make these patients more than medical oddities.
But several scenes are haunting, especially when Brook and his actors have managed to find simple but theatrically effective constructs for the stories.
Thus: Looking at the sea on a TV monitor, a patient describes the oscillating lines, the layers of blue water and white foam; but not until the sound is turned up does he know what he’s looking at, and his quiet acknowledgement, “It’s the sea,” has great poignance. So does a parallel scene with a rose and the patient’s almost mournful, “It’s a rose. I didn’t recognize it — and I used to love roses.”
“In my dreams, I’m at peace,” says a patient ravaged by Tourette’s syndrome — the “thunderstorm in the brain” that causes uncontrollable utterances and tics –“but there’s no neat and tidy place for meon this earth.”
A patient who can register only the right side of a scene is terrified to see his face on a monitor, the left side still lathered after what he believes to have been his morning shave.
The scenes are more about struggle than triumph, and the prognosis for most of these people is barely hopeful. “The Man Who” is Brook in a minor key, a thoughtful evening with a number of memorable moments.
But it’s also austere and narrowly focused, so lacking in narrative structure that the play never achieves the force of Sacks’ written accounts.
All but daring an audience to engage with these splintered minds, it’s anti-performance art.