'The Man Who' Explores Strange Inner Worlds

Compassionate vignettes inspired by experiences of mental patients


Directed by Peter Brook.

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music/Majestic Theater.

Through April 9.

'The Man Who'' is the product of an impressive pairing: Peter Brook, widely regarded as the world's greatest theater director, and Oliver Sacks, surely the only person ever to earn the unlikely title of superstar neurobiologist.

Based on one of Sacks's bestselling books, ''The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,'' the new play is about 100 minutes long -- a fraction of the time Brook allowed for ''The Mahabharata,'' a nine-hour epic that also played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's funky Majestic Theater.

''The Man Who'' makes up in concentration what it lacks in breadth, however. Not a moment is wasted as its four-person cast enacts a series of vignettes inspired by experiences of mental patients. Implicit in the play is a conviction that everyday habits impel most of us to wear mental blinders that screen out the most daunting, frightening, and potentially exalting possibilities of our own spirits.

For all its simplicity and straightforwardness, ''The Man Who'' aims to give us inklings of inner worlds that all can recognize, even if few of us would choose to inhabit them. This follows in the footsteps of Sacks's career as a ''romantic scientist,'' who writes up medical cases not just to provide clinical accounts, but to probe what he calls ''the intersection of fact and fable'' in search of ''new symbols, new myths.'' While his work is anchored in medical concepts, his approach is warmly compassionate and endlessly accepting of the very real people who become less his patients than his friends, teachers, and heroes.

Sacks has not always been well-served by dramatizations of his work. Michael Nyman's opera based on ''The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat'' is a minor work by a major composer. Penny Marshall's film of ''Awakenings,'' with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro, turned a provocative book into a shallow entertainment. Sacks defended the movie, saying it offered a sort of ''dramatic'' truth -- leading some critics to wonder if a case of Hollywooditis had thrown Sacks's renowned profundity into temporary disarray.

''The Man Who'' prompts no such worries. Using the back-to-basics style Brook has developed for years at the International Center for Theater Research (his Paris-based organization), he and his actors have managed to preserve both the philosophical integrity and the human interest of Sacks's essays.

The performances capture diverse characters with amazing economy, conveying the difficulty of their diagnosed conditions without overlooking the appeal of their personalities -- or the frequent humor that can't help arising when smart, strong individuals wrestle with anomalies on a daily basis.

Due praise having been offered, shortcomings must be noted. It's odd that Brook and company have eliminated all the women of Sacks's book. The episodes dodge ethical questions that arise when physicians are better at identifying conditions than healing them. Also missing is the emotional depth that Sacks's best writing evokes. The play depicts the frustration, anger, and frequent melancholy of its characters, but not the extremes of violent, raging despair that must also be part of their experience.

Perhaps most important, ''The Man Who'' seems less committed than Sacks to the proposition that its characters are brave explorers who traverse strange territories they never asked to visit. It is absorbing and ingenious, but it doesn't retain the radical adventurousness that distinguishes Sacks's most provocative prose.

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