Dental Society Midwinter Meeting
It's bitterest January in Joliet, some fifty miles south of Chicago, when six thousand dental professionals converge on the local Marriott to see the latest technology, attend a few seminars on upright behavior, and meet up with old friends. But a plaque (or perhaps a tartar) of scandal clings to the festivities, as the president of the dental society has betrayed his wife, and his own ethical code. Strangely, though, that's just the dramatic core of events, driving a strong series of lighthearted comic vignettes through to a vision of life that is surprisingly complex and bittersweet. And what dentist has ever actually spoken out against bittersweets?
Author Jacqmin has certainly done her homeworkshe knows about those mandatory drug-awareness seminars and the problem of insurance fraud among health care providers. And Dana Black is deliciously funny throughout, especially as the all-too-knowledgeable expert on the misuse of self-prescribed narcotics, and (elsewhere) as a drunken conferee at her hotel room, with Justin James Farley in tow. Later, Mr. Farley will suffer one of the show's darkest moods, for bilking the health insurance industry. But, back on the funny side of the story, Collin Geraghty gets to develop a sudden panic attack in a seminar (delivered sternly by Paige Smith) on accounting for reimbursement. That back-and-forth, between comedy and tragedy, keeps the humor grounded in reality. At the final fade-out, an element of success, and another of gloom, diffuse into a rare and wistful quality. It's a wistfulness that ultimately honors both the characters and the real world beyond.
But I really don't want to ruin it with too much gushing. Still, there's also a deliciously cinematic little scene with Ms. Black and Rakisha Pollard (as Southern belles) gossiping in a hotel swimming pool, until they get into a splash fight with Rhonda Marie Bynum. Ms. Bynum later gets a fine moment to shine as "the other woman," who may or may not be broken by all the gossip and dismay. Adultery and malfeasance are never treated lightly here, but a dash of willful naiveté, familiar to anyone who's survived their 30s and 40s, helps shape the bemused undertone.
Michael Mroch's set is a model of clinical efficiency, with a little crowded waiting area for the actors just off stage-right. And Christopher Kriz's pre-show and intermission music boasts vintage toothpaste commercial jingles, with Allan Sherman and others who sing an array of dental maintenance ditties. I suppose the only thing missing is some kind of parody of all those famous "nightmare dentists," from Marathon Man to Little Shop of Horrors and beyond. But in missing that one obvious opportunity, this show actually rises above our expectations, as a delightfully original experience.
Through August 7, 2010, at Chicago Dramatists, at Chicago and Milwaukee (1105 W. Chicago Ave.). For more information visit www.thedentistsarecoming.com.
Photo by Michael Litchfield