No one, but no one, unearths theatrical curiosities the way the Mint Theater Company does. Take, for example, its newest production: Doctor Knock, or the Triumph of Medicine. It was a smash in France in 1923, and during its five-year run catapulted to new heights both playwright Jules Romains and director-star Louis Jouvet (who made a career of the title role, on stage and film, for the rest of his life). But since its Broadway bow in 1928, it hasnít entered the popular revival cycle in New York. One viewing of the Mintís well-appointed production, which has been translated and directed by Gus Kaikkonen, will explain both the French and American reactions.
For this must rank as one of the weirdest Mint excavations in history. Act I is set in and around a sputtering roadster, as Dr. Knock (Thomas M. Hammond) is driven to the new practice in St. Maurice that heís purchased from the aging Dr. Parpalaid (Patrick Husted). Along the way, Knock explains his personal history ó heís recently completed his studies, but worked as a doctor for many years before he became official ó and plans to turn Parpalaidís sleepy practice into a thriving house of healing. Act II is set on the first day in Knockís new clinic, as he entertains the weary and wary populace and begins to diagnose their myriad (and rapidly appearing) maladies. Act III is set in, uh, a hotel.
It does all make sense when youíre watching it. Sort of. The playís overall satirical bent just bleeds through, but itís alternately so gentle and so pointed that you may never notice precisely recurring symptoms. Knock is presented as both a deeply concerned artisan and someone who, if not an outright quack or fraud (though that wouldnít be surprising) puts more faith in constant observation and bed rest than trusting that the patient feels fine. Itís a creative extrapolation of New Medicine that, 87 years ago, must have had French audiences rolling in the aisles, and still provokes far more laughs than youíd expect from a script that jokes about diseased hearts, spinal deformities, and malfunctioning motorcar engines.
Still, itís difficult not to feel that the last nine decades have stripped us of the language needed to properly appreciate this play ó assuming we ever had it in this country. I donít know Romainsís original text, but Kaikkonenís version is completely free of flair, letting both the situational silliness and the underlying creepiness shine unabashedly through. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I have no idea. Nor can I say for sure whether the vaguely vaudevillian look of Charles Morganís set, Sam Flemingís costumes, and Gerard James Kellyís hair and wigs is a help or hindrance. Do we want to believe that these people are real, or do we want to believe theyíre not?
In any case, it seems a bit unlikely that if Jouvetís performance was as thoughtful, stately, and stolid as Hammondís, it would cause quite the sensation it apparently did. Hammond plays everything so sedate and seriousness that the laughs ignite almost as afterthoughts ó itís effective, in its way, but itís more subversive than openly scintillating. Husted is an all-out straight man, and just as studied a one, the kind that lets everyoneís insanity spin helplessly around him. The supporting cast, which includes Patti Perkins, Scott Barrow, Chris Mixon, and Jennifer Harmon, travels further down the low-comedy road, and achieve enough success with their exaggerations that you canít help but think thatís probably the preferred playing style.
But who can say for sure? Separated by two imposing oceans ó one of time, one of water ó weíre so far removed from the world of Doctor Knock that itís not easy to understand its nuances, let alone articulate them. One thingís for sure: Itís the type of delightfully bewildering outing youíll see almost nowhere in New York on a regular basis outside the Mint. So if youíre interested in injecting your theatregoing with a healthy dose of the amusingly bizarre, my advice is to buy two tickets and call me in the morning.
Dr. Knock, Or The Triumph of Medicine