Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Sick: American Paranoia Returns
to New Jersey Repertory

Kevin Sebastian, Meredith Napolitano and Rusty Ross
It is 2007 all over again at New Jersey Repertory.  Well, unfortunately, not quite.  That January, New Jersey Repertory began the year with October, 1962, an engrossing and powerful play about a family and an American town thrown into disarray by paranoia which allegorically placed the blame for the Cuban Missile Crisis and, in turn, the Iraqi War on American paranoia.  This year, New Jersey Rep is again treading the same ideological ground in Sick an "off-beat comedy" by Zayd Dohrn.  However, the play is lacking in either humor or depth, and thus falls flat.  Sick plays as if it were an unsuccessful attempt by a playwriting student to capture the satiric political brilliance of Jules Feiffer (The White House Murder Case and, more to the point, Little Murders).  However, unlike Feiffer, this dour play weakens its political theme by failing to acknowledge that in times of stress and trouble, there is room for legitimate disagreement as to when legitimate concern ends and paranoia begins.  Also unlike Feiffer, Dohrn displays the all too common mindset that fails to recognize that paranoia is an aspect of human nature that affects people of all persuasions. The effect is that Sick makes an audience feel that it is being lectured to by a writer with a view of human nature skewed by political ideology.

As Sick begins, Sidney, a graduate school poetry writing instructor, arrives home at his New York City apartment one evening accompanied by his student, James.  The windows to the apartment are sealed with heavy plastic, and the walls and furnishings are all in white.  Air purifiers are whirring away about the room.  Sidney, who longs for a bit of sane companionship, has been playing racquetball with Jim and is now plying him with lewd 17th century poetry by the Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot.  James is there to obtain Sidney's signature on a letter of recommendation for a PhD program at Stanford.

Enter Sidney's wife, Maxine.  She is dressed in white and wearing a paper surgical-style mask.  Maxine is angry and upset by James' presence and the dirt and pollution which he and Sidney have brought in with them.  Maxine and their daughter and son Sarah and Davy never leave the apartment for fear of the chemical solutions and poisons which have polluted New York's air as a result of 9/11.  Particularly vulnerable is Davy.  He is often bedridden and on a respirator, and has recurring bouts of respiratory distress.  The home-schooled Sarah is afraid to reveal to Maxine that she is planning to go to college at St. John's.  She has secretly applied there and been awarded a full scholarship.  As act one draws to a close, Sidney reveals that for weeks he has been bringing chemicals into the apartment—moth balls, Cheez Whiz, motor oil, windshield wiper fluid—and secreting them away.  As Davy has not developed any further symptoms, Sidney informs the family that he is not allergic to chemicals after all.  Davy collapses in a state of anaphylactic shock.

As the second act begins, Davy is in bed recovering from his near death experience, and a changed and chastened Sidney has donned a surgical mask and fallen into lock step with Maxine.  Jim, a man of reason, knows that, even though Davy has managed to work himself into a frenzy and given himself quite a nose bleed, he is not really ill.  Jim, who has made a connection with Sarah, invites her back to his apartment.  Maxine desperately wants her to remain home in fear.  Will Jim be able to get her free?  Playwrights, novelists and screenwriters have been manipulating our emotions with this situation since time immemorial.

Playwright Zayd Dohrn fails to move us for a couple of reasons.  We have seen this final confrontation coming since early in the first act.  The story and characters have not retained our interest because, as written, neither is believable, and the characters have no defining traits beyond the demands of the plot at hand.  This is particularly true of Maxine. 

The second act is a tad more interesting than the first because the political intent of the writing comes into focus.  However, it is annoying that Dohrn ignores complexities which he might have explored.  It appears clear that his theme is that Americans have become insular and paranoiac as a result of 9/11.   Yet, with a few small tweaks, the play could be about the paranoia of man-made global warning.  Could one not infer that Sidney and family, who are specifically Jewish, are paranoiac about the presence of anti-Semitism?  Is it a coincidence that Sarah is trying to escape to St. John's?  Another thought that crossed my mind was that at some level Dohrn's plot may have reflected events in his own difficult childhood as his parents hid their identities from law enforcement authorities (Playwright Zayd Dohrn is the son of Bernadine Dohrn and William Ayers).  Because of the thinness of the writing, during the second act, my mind was running off in too many different directions.  And, although no impediment should ever be put in the way of artistic, socio-political expression, I will be so bold as to suggest that if Sick would acknowledge that there is some basis for the post 9/11 fear, Dohrn could be making a stronger case for ascribing paranoia to America.

Director Benjamin Endsley Klein must take a share of the blame for the farcical first act finale being painful, rather than funny.  Jim Shankman and Liz Zazzi perform above and beyond the call of duty to bring some ballast to Sick.  Jim Shankman maintains a naturalistic cool as the fidgety, good natured, hang-dog Sidney.  Shankman's Sidney is a man who will somehow always find a way to cope, although he may not do so very well. Liz Zazzi brings robust life to the role of Maxine.  Her dynamic, let it all hang out performance holds at bay questions in regard to Maxine's motivation. And, now that I think about it, how did she evolve into the Maxine we see on stage? Meredith Napolitano brings a nice little girl lost quality to her quiet Sarah.  Rusty Ross's Jim is a young man whose quiet demeanor masks the aggression of his actions.  Kevin Sebastian rounds out the cast in the sight gag role of Davy.

Artistic Director SuzAnne Barbaras has again brought us a provocatively themed play reflecting on contemporary issues of importance.  Unfortunately, as it now stands, Sick is dull and simplistic.

Sick continues performances (Evenings: Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m. / Sun. 7 PM; Matinees: Sat 3 p.m./ Sun 2 p.m.) through March 15, 2009 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online:

Photo: SuzAnne Barabas 

Sick by Zayd Dohrn; directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein
Sarah…………………………..Meredith Napolitano
Davy………………………………….Kevin Sebastian
Sidney………………………………….Jim Shankman
Jim…………………………………………..Rusty Ross
Maxine…………………………………………Liz Zazzi

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Photo: Joan Marcus

- Bob Rendell

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