'Mensch Meier' dives into the murky depths of family turmoil

Mensch Meier. Play by Franz Xaver Kroetz, translated by Roger Downey. Directed by Jacques Levy.

The Manhattan Theatre Club continues its season with a contemporary German domestic drama by Franz Xaver Kroetz. According to a program note, Mr. Kroetz has been associated in theater and films with the late Werner Rainer Fassbinder and has since 1968 written more than 30 dramas, radio scripts, and television plays. The program adds: ''By 1974, he was Germany's most produced playwright. 'Mensch Meier'. . . is widely regarded as his finest play.''

The drama concerns the fragmentation of the blue-collar Meier family: Otto (Stephen McHattie), the domineering father, an assembly-line worker in a Munich auto factory; Martha (Barbara Eda-Young), his dutiful, platitudinous wife; and Ludwig (Thor Fields), their resolutely unambitious teen-age son.

Meier finds fantasy self-realization piloting a model airplane. A man of many frustrations, he can become obsessed with such relatively small matters as retrieving a ball point pen his boss has borrowed or figuring whether a waiter overcharged him on a Sunday outing. More practically, he frets over layoffs at the factory.

Meier's greatest concern, however, is his unforthcoming son. When the father suspects - but cannot prove - that Ludwig has stolen 50 marks to attend a rock concert, he goes berserk and wrecks the family apartment. Ludwig and Martha leave home. Yet even though Otto attempts to recover both wife and son, he seems incapable of recognizing the error of his ways, let alone mending them.

''Mensch Meier'' deals with its family turmoil in a series of tersely written scenes that unfold in cinematic fashion. The performance of Roger Downey's idiomatic translation staged by Jacques Levy seems to serve the grappling nature of the play, particularly in Mr. McHattie's portrayal of Meier's desperation. Yet the overall effect tends to be desultory and the occasional sexual explicitness is offensive. Even a sympathetic spectator may find it difficult to become very deeply involved with the disoriented Meiers.

Ray Recht's abstractly utilitarian set design features a series of changing back-panel paintings by Clayton Campbell which freeze some moments in each scene. The production was costumed by Susan Hilferty and lighted by Robert Jared.

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