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Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Dave Quay, Brian Thomas Vaughan, Scott Thomas, and Jay Patterson.
Photo by Richard Termine.

Depending on one's point of view, it can be either depressing or strangely comforting to realize that human foibles and societal issues we think of as fairly recent are actually not. Plays dating from bygone eras often bring home this point. And when it comes to playwrights whose works remain so relevant that they seem almost shockingly modern, rather than dated in any significant way, Jules Romains (1885-1972) is an excellent example (if not among the most famous).

In 2010, the Mint Theater Company gave us an acclaimed production of Romains' best-known work, Dr. Knock, a darkly comic lampoon of the medical profession. Now the company is presenting Donogoo, a more obscure Romains piece that also makes fun of crazy doctors (in an early scene) but moves on to cut a wide swathe as it satirizes academic fraud, real estate frenzy, the stock market, French imperialism (and imperialism in general), etc., etc.

Most of the play's first act is set in Paris. The central character is M. Lamendin (James Riordan), whom we first encounter in so depressed a mood that he seems about to throw himself off a bridge into a canal. His suicide is prevented by the chance arrival of a friend, Benin (Mitch Greenberg) , who sends Lamendin off to see Miguel Rufisque (George Morfogen), a specialist in "biometric psychotherapy." (Rufisque is one of those nutso doctors for whom the phrase "Physician, heal thyself!" might have been invented.)

Through a highly unlikely meeting engineered by Rufisque, Lamendin soon falls in with Yves Le Trouhadec (Morforgen again), a professor of geography who has been discredited because it turns out that Donogoo-Tonka, a South African village he had identified as the center of a gold-mining region near Brazil, doesn't exist. The prof fears this little snag will prevent his election to the Academy of Sciences, but Lamendin is inspired to help him regain his reputation by traveling to South Africa and founding Donogoo-Tonka himself. Details of what ensues would spoil the fun; let's just say the point of the play not so much "If you build it, they will come" as "If you hype it enough, even though it's not real, someone will build it."

According to the press notes for the Mint production, Donogoo was first published in 1920 as a novel in the form of a mock film scenario. With its many scenes set in multiple locations in Paris, in the heart of the Brazilian jungle, and elsewhere, the property was thought unfeasible for stage presentation until the opening of the Theatre Pigalle, which boasted state-of-the-art stage machinery. The play version of Donogoo opened there in 1930, and became a huge hit.

While the stage at the Mint's home on West 43rd Street is fairly large by Off-Broadway standards, the theater doesn't have the facilities (or the wing and fly space) for multiple scene changes with traditional hardware sets. The solution in presenting Donogoo is a series of projections, beautifully designed by Roger Hanna and Price Johnston, upon the back and side walls of the stage. Certain areas of these projections are animated and combined with set pieces and props in a brilliantly creative way, as when one of the characters removes a real volume from a virtual shelf full of virtual books. Several other moments of animation clearly tickled the audience at the performance I attended, none more so than what we see when someone becomes sick to his stomach on the deck of an ocean liner plying its way towards South America¬Ö

Lighting designer Price Johnston is a miracle worker who has somehow managed to fully and properly light the actors without washing out the projections. Sam Fleming's costumes are gorgeous, and there are LOTS of them; while the cast numbers only 13, they play nearly 50 separate roles, not counting walk-ons.

Riordan only plays our (anti)hero, Lamendin, but he does so to comic perfection as the character metamorphoses from a sad sack to a possessed megalomaniac . Morfogen is typically wonderful as both Rufisque and Le Trouhadec, and is barely recognizable from one role to the other. (Shout out to wig designer Gerard Kelly for his great help on that score.)

Greenberg is a jovial presence as the catalyst for all the insane goings-on, and Ross Bickell is terrific as a banker who's only too happy to jump on the Donogoo bandwagon once it gets going. The other four dozen or more roles are vividly played by (in order of appearance) Scott Thomas, Vladimir Versailles, Dave Quay, Paul Pontrelli, Megan Robinson, Jay Patterson, Kraig Swartz, Brian Thomas Vaughan, and Douglas Rees.

Gus Kaikkonen directs the proceedings with just the right farcical tone —generally quite subtle, rather than broad, which would have ruined everything. Kaikkonen also translated the play in a way that makes it sound of its period and its French origin yet bracingly modern, universal, and all too timely. Donogoo will be ripe for revival as long as some people are willing to dupe and take advantage of their fellow man for the sake of power, notoriety, and their own personal gain, while others are happily gullible enough to be thus taken advantage of.

Through July 27
Mint Theatre, 311 West 43rd Street., between 8th and 9th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix