The New York Times

Drama in Review

By D.J.R. BRUCKNER Published: June 5, 1991


The Living Theater 272 East Third Street Through June 23 By Walter Hasenclever; directed by Elena Jandova and Martin Reckhaus; produced by Hanon Resnikov and Judith Malina; composers and musicians, Patrick Grant and Philip Brehse; lighting, Tony Angel and Gary Brackett. WITH: Alan Arenius, Philip Brehse, Joanie Fritz, Laura Kolb, Chris Maresca and Pat Russell.

Summarizing the plot of an Expressionist play is futile, but here goes: In “Humanity” (“Die Menschen”), a 1918 German work by Walter Hasenclever, a murdered man, roused from his grave, spends a spectral day trying to bring compassion into a world ruled by money lust and indifferent to injustice, before he finds peace in his grave again when his murderer discovers his own humanity.

Other viewers of the production at the Living Theater will give other accounts, no doubt. Most will find it weirdly exciting. And it is quick; the directors, Elena Jandova and Martin Reckhaus, whip 19 actors in 31 roles through 24 scenes in just over an hour. But Hasenclever wrote the play as a string of almost speechless blackouts, and here it is given spectacular staging. Some scenes — such as the murdered man’s discovery that a head he carries around in a sack is his own — fade in bright light.

The program says the set designer, Tom Bynum, is a yacht designer. I believe it. Only a man required to contemplate shipwreck could dream up the metallic, jagged and broken city in 20 pieces, which the characters constantly dismantle and reconstruct. Admittedly, haunting music by Patrick Grant and Philip Brehse makes it all seem a ballet, but one fears limbs may be lost.

This is the kind of play the members of this company are good at — very good. It would be hard to forget the scenes of tycoons gambling billions and pyramiding paper empires while around them people assault one another for pennies and see their babies starve, or a dynamite dialogue of only 14 words revealing that Hasenclever’s view of socialist solutions was also bitterly realistic.

To convey so many subtle ideas so dramatically and economically is a considerable achievement. This performance is a gift that makes one want to see the scores of other plays Hasenclever wrote.