Reviews

The Doctor ****, The Comeuppance ****

By: David Sheward

June 28, 2923: Remember when theater used to be of the moment and reflect what was going on outside the auditorium politically and socially? How playwrights were like doctors forcing us to gaze upon an X-ray of our societal ailments? Such intense examination in our otherwise escapist entertainment fare does occur upon occasion and should be celebrated. Two current Off-Broadway productions offer an unblinkered diagnosis of the current divided state and while it may not provide a pretty picture, these X-rays are illuminating and gripping.

Juliet Stevenson and Juliet Garricks in “The Doctor”.

By: David Sheward

June 28, 2923: Remember when theater used to be of the moment and reflect what was going on outside the auditorium politically and socially? How playwrights were like doctors forcing us to gaze upon an X-ray of our societal ailments? Such intense examination in our otherwise escapist entertainment fare does occur upon occasion and should be celebrated. Two current Off-Broadway productions offer an unblinkered diagnosis of the current divided state and while it may not provide a pretty picture, these X-rays are illuminating and gripping.

John McKay in The Doctor.

To extend the medical metaphor, the first report on the faltering state of our psychological health is dire but makes for necessary and absorbing viewing. It’s an import from Great Britain and an adaptation of an obscure, century-old melodrama, but the The Doctor is a vital, unflinching report on what’s happening in our country as well as in England. Director-adaptor Robert Icke, who dazzled New York audiences last summer with a modern repertory staging of Hamlet and Oresteia, returns to the Park Avenue Armory with his “very” free, powerful adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s obscure 1912 drama Professor Bernhardi. That seldom-produced work pits the titular Jewish physician against the anti-Semitic medical establishment when he refuses to allow a Catholic priest admission to a dying young woman who has not explicitly requested religious counsel. 

In Icke’s skillful updating, the central conflict is repeated, but the aftermath takes on multiple modern issues including identity politics, racism, sexism, religion versus science, and the “woke” phenomenon. The new protagonist is the strident, uncompromising  Dr. Ruth Wolff (a brilliantly bombastic Juliet Stevenson) who abhors labels for individuals, has Jewish roots, eschews religion, and is a closet lesbian. The initial confrontation with the priest is complicated by the fact that he is black and the young woman patient is 14 years old and perishing of sepsis after a botched, self-inflicted abortion. 

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor.

The incident becomes a public-relations nightmare as the institute Ruth founded and runs is desperate for funding to open a new building and fund research for an Alzheimer’s cure. As the ramifications of Ruth’s actions explode, she becomes a victim of media hysteria and finally must reevaluate her most basic assumptions about her profession and herself. Icke’s script deftly and deeply explores the complex dimensions of the issues raised. His direction moves the play along like a locomotive yet still allows contradictory  ideas and viewpoints to be fully expressed. You’ll be thinking and debating about this play long after the final lights dim. (Tom Gibbons’ propulsive percussion score, played by Hannah Ledwidge at the performance attended, further drives the action. Natasha Chivers’ lighting also adds to tense atmosphere.) In a stroke of daring casting and to force us to reconsider our own biases, several of the male roles are played by women, blacks are played by whites and vice versa. Another layer of conflict is added with depictions of Ruth’s homelife which includes her partner’s illness and chafing at being kept hidden as well as the visits of a transgender teen whom Ruth mentors.

Stevenson’s powerhouse performance dominates the proceedings. From her first explosive entrance when she bursts into a meeting correcting the grammar of an intern to her painful unravelling under intense public pressure to a final calm but devastated contemplation of her horrific ordeal, Stevenson charts Ruth’s painful journey with compassion and complexity. There are also valuable contributions from Juliet Garricks as Ruth’s long-suffering partner, Matilda Tucker as her troubled teen friend, John Mackay in the dual role of the priest and the patient’s outraged father, and Naomi Wirthner and Dona Croll switching genders as male authority figures. 

Matilda Tucker in The Doctor.
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The prescription for the conflict is inconclusive here. Icke offers no easy answers, but The Doctor raises many worthy and perplexing questions.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins also unflinchingly probes the illnesses of modern society in his latest work The Comeuppance at Signature Theater. As he had done in previous scathing plays such as An Octoroon, Gloria and Appropriate (which will have its Broadway debut in a Second Stage production later this season), Jacobs-Jenkins peels back the polite public veneer of daily interactions to reveal the seething turmoil beneath. With this latest report on contemporary conflict, Jacobs-Jenkins takes a seemingly innocuous group situation—five high school friends gather for a “pre-game” get-together before their 20th reunion—and transforms it into a soul-shattering contemplation of life choices, political movements, and mortality itself. 

Caleb Eberhardt, Bobby Moreno, Shannon Tyo, Susannah Flood, and Brittany Bradford in The Comeuppance.

In addition to surviving 9/11, endless wars and unrest, and most recently the COVID shutdown, each of the quintet has made questionable life choices and now is receiving their “comeuppance,” paying the consequences of their ill-considered options. They are also reaching the age when youth is at its last stages and illness and death are on the horizon. Jacob-Jenkins cleverly conveys this grim reality by having each the characters become the Grim Reaper in sly asides to the audiences. To create this effect, sound designer Palmer Hefferan gives each performer’s voice a demonic distortion, lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker put them in a spooky spotlight, and there are eerie illusions created by “magic designer” Skylar Fox. Death gives us the lowdown on his trade and how it will affect each of the five.

The five were part of an unofficial club nicknamed MERGE for Multi-Ethnic Reject Group and now no longer feel special. Embittered Emilio (savagely sharp Caleb Eberhardt) is an avant-garde artist living in Berlin, but he still has feelings for scattered Caitlin (superbly fluttery Susannah Flood) who has regrets about her marriage to a much older man with two near-adult children. Shut-in Ursula (subtly sad Brittany Bradford), whose front porch provides the setting, grieves the recent death of her beloved grandmother, is gradually losing her sight due to diabetes and is withdrawing from the world. Francisco (shatteringly pathetic Bobby Moreno) is dealing with homelessness and traumatic nightmares due to a near-death explosion while serving in Iraq. He used to date Caitlin and evidently abused her. Francisco’s cousin, alcoholic Kristina (expressively conflicted Shannon Tyo) is weighted down with her crushing hours as a surgeon and caring for five children and seeks release in intense partying. 

Susannah Flood and Bobby Moreno in a scene from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ in The Comeuppance.

How these once bright and promising students deal with the difficult circumstances of being adult and facing death form the spine of Jacobs-Jenkins’ insightful play. Eric Ting’s direction is almost invisible, the action is natural and untheatrical as is the superb ensemble acting. The actors are so relaxed and realistic that when a phone went off in the audience at the performance attended, they acknowledged the interruption without breaking character, paused a moment and went on without missing a beat as if the annoyance were part of the script. 

Caleb Eberhardt, Brittany Bradford and Susannah Flood in a scene from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ in The Comeuppance.

Like The Doctor, The Comeuppance does not claim to have a solution to the dilemmas faced by its characters. We must all reckon with the specter of Death and Jacobs-Jenkins documents that struggle with rare insight and sympathy.

The Doctor ****
June 13—Aug. 19. Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., NYC. Running time: two hours and 45 mins. including intermission. armoryonpark.org.
Photography: Stephanie Berger

Naomi Wirthner and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor.

The Comeuppance ****
June 5—July 9. Signature Theater at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 10 mins. with no intermission. signature theater.org.
Photography: Monique Carboni

Brittany Bradford and Caleb Eberhardt in a scene from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ in The Comeuppance.