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Dr. Knock, Or The Triumph of Medicine

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

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 hasn't entered the popular revival cycle in New York. One viewing of the Mint's 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 he's purchased from the aging Dr. Parpalaid (Patrick Husted). Along the way, Knock explains his personal history—he's recently completed his studies, but worked as a doctor for many years before he became official—and plans to turn Parpalaid's sleepy practice into a thriving house of healing. Act II is set on the first day in Knock's 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 you're watching it. Sort of. The play's overall satirical bent just bleeds through, but it's 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 wouldn't be surprising) puts more faith in constant observation and bed rest than trusting that the patient feels fine. It's 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 you'd expect from a script that jokes about diseased hearts, spinal deformities, and malfunctioning motorcar engines.

Still, it's difficult not to feel that the last nine decades have stripped us of the language needed to properly appreciate this play—assuming we ever had it in this country. I don't know Romains's original text, but Kaikkonen's 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 Morgan's set, Sam Fleming's costumes, and Gerard James Kelly's hair and wigs is a help or hindrance. Do we want to believe that these people are real, or do we want to believe they're not?

In any case, it seems a bit unlikely that if Jouvet's performance was as thoughtful, stately, and stolid as Hammond's, it would cause quite the sensation it apparently did. Hammond plays everything so sedate and seriousness that the laughs ignite almost as afterthoughts—it's effective, in its way, but it's more subversive than openly scintillating. Husted is an all-out straight man, and just as studied a one, the kind that lets everyone's 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 can't help but think that's probably the preferred playing style.

But who can say for sure? Separated by two imposing oceans—one of time, one of water—we're so far removed from the world of Doctor Knock that it's not easy to understand its nuances, let alone articulate them. One thing's for sure: It's the type of delightfully bewildering outing you'll see almost nowhere in New York on a regular basis outside the Mint. So if you're 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
Through June 6
Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street., between 8th and 9th Avenue
Performances: Tues 7:00 pm, Wed 7:00 pm, Th 7:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 2:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 2:00 pm
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Mint Theatre

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