Anyone who has sat through a commercial for one pill or another will recognize and acknowledge the satiric thrust of this enjoyable 1920’s French farce.
Doctor Knock by Jules Romains. Translated from the French and directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by the Peterborough Players at the Peterborough Players Theatre, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through August 28.
By Jim Kates.
Jules Romains’s Dr. Knock comes to us from France in the early 1920s, but the conditions the play satirizes in fiction have now become standard practice in contemporary, television pharmaceutical advertising. Anyone who has sat through a commercial for one pill or another will recognize and acknowledge its thrust. That is enough to compel our interest, and the comedy in the satire clothes mere interest in delight. At times, the play seems to be running away from its own savage indignation, enjoying itself too much—which doesn’t get in the way of our own enjoyment of this production.
The Dr. Knock of the title is a medical con-man who has stumbled on a simple truth he can exploit, that “people are tired of good health and would rather pay for bad.” He takes over a provincial practice and turns it to profit—he would argue not only his own, but everyone’s, because, like every successful con-man, he has conned himself first and last.
Dr. Knock has kept a successful place in the repertory in France but has proved far less engaging in this country. Gus Kaikkonen, who also directs this production of the play at the Peterborough Players, attributed its neglect to the lack of an adequate contemporary translation, and not only prescribed but administered the treatment—a version that he first mounted to critical approval last year in New York.
As the director, when Kaikkonen goes for the comedy and lets the satire take care of itself, the production comes alive—and this carries the entire first act and the end of the second. For much of the second act and the third, however, he allows the actors to stand all too still and talk to each other, back and forth, leaving it to the words and the characterizations themselves to carry the play, which, for the most part, they do without a lot of extraneous stage business. Yet, there are long moments that feel two-dimensional.
This Dr. Knock may be the first time that I have seen Kraig Swartz, as the eponymous doctor, nearly eclipsed in comedy by those around him. As I’ve watched his performances lately, Swartz appears to be an actor in transition, from his earlier, younger, more confidently manic comic riffs to a more settled maturity. Now, Dr. Knock comes across a little rough around the edges and surprisingly earnest—lacking the smoothness and dazzle to convince us that he is really convincing others. Instead, they convince themselves. (This, of course, is also the mark of a good con, so the play as a whole does not suffer.)
Consequently, the other character actors in a variety of characters take over the comedy. In the first act, Ryan Farley as a chauffeur straight out of a Mel Brooks movie nearly pulls the play out from under everyone else’s feet, but he’s given a good run for his money by Dale Hodges playing Madame Parpalaid, the wife of the doctor (Michael Dell’Orto) Dr.Knock has come to replace. And they’re all nearly upstaged by a marvelous, mechanical wonder, a motorcar designed, I guess, by the scenic designer Charles Morgan.
When Hodges reappears in the second act as The Lady in Purple, she exudes an energy, simply by standing and spouting, that takes over the stage. (Her get-up, not quite as purple as the cast-list suggests, a brainchild of Sam Fleming, doesn’t hurt the effect.) But then here comes Farley backing up Casey Jordan in rollicking circus antics to finish the act.
Kaikkonen turns the play slightly dark and threatening in its final image, reminding us of the power Dr. Knock has let loose. Our final laughter may be a little uneasy, but the point has been made and jabbed into us. The Peterborough Players’ live and lively production provides a salutary inoculation of good fun against the grim manipulation of those television ads.