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A CurtainUp Review
Dr. Knock, Or The Triumph Of Medicine

You left me responsible for a township of thousands of neutral directionless individuals. My function is to lead them to a life of medicine. I put them to bed and see what emerges: tuberculosis, nervous debility, arterio-sclerosis, what ever you like, but something usually appears, thank God! Nothing frustrates me more than that indeterminate nonentity we call a healthy man..— Dr. Knock

You may say I'm criticizing, splitting hairs. But doesn't your method subordinate the interest of the patient to the interest of the doctor?—Dr. Parpalaid
You forget a higher interest, doctor. The interest of medicine. That's what absorbs me.—Dr. Knock
Dr. Knock
Thomas M. Hammond as Dr. Knock
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Audiences in Jules Romains' native France loved his charlatan doctor, a man so unable to look anyone in the eye without "feeling a diagnosis coming on, no matter how useless or out of place it may be" that he became "afraid to look into the mirror." Dr. Knock, Or The Triumph Of Medicine opened in Paris in 1923 and enjoyed an unprecedented 5-year run. When the Moliere-like comedy (think The Imaginary Invalid) crossed the pond in 1928 to make its Broadway debut, it lasted for just 32 performances. If you count paid previews, this season's most spectacular flop, Enron, beat that by a count of two.

But as Enron continues to run in London and has scheduled an international tour, so Dr. Knock was not knocked down by its failure to become a major Broadway hit. In fact, the comedy continued to enjoy many successful revivals elsewhere and was filmed three times with the actor Louis Jouvet, for whom it became a reliable gig, as The Count of Monte Cristo was for Eugene O'Neill's thespian father.

Dr. Knock did finally land in that netherworld of by-gone successes after the second World War. Now, with the need to bring financial health as well as affordable healthcare to Americans being very much part of the current national conversation, the time is indeed be ripe to reintroduce this amusing parable to New York theater goers. As health care and financial reform bills are endlessly debated and rewritten, Dr. Knock's ridiculous methods and their effects on the wealth and health of the citizens of a small French town maybe just the thing to make you laugh about issues that don't offer many real life laughs. And who better to bring Dr. Knock back to life than Jonathan Bank whose Mint Theater has become one of the city's best restorers of neglected or forgotten theatrical treasures. The company has earned its well-deserved reputation by finding just the right balance needed to create a work that's true to its time but also brings out its relevancy to contemporary audiences.

To make Romains' work once again stageworthy, Gus Kaikkonen is on board as both translator and director. The Mint's many loyal patrons will remember Kaikkonen's wonderful revival of the best and most enduring play about a financial scandal, Harley Granville Barker's The Voysey Inheritance (review). He also helmed that same author's The Madras House, (review) which featured Thomas H. Hammond, who now invests the self-deluded Dr. Knock with the slick charm and persuasiveness of a trader touting the stock of a company built more on air than substance to credulous investors.

To give the audience a sense of the time — a time when advanced medical treatments were pretty basic, Mr. Kaikkonen has staged this extravagant spoof with its original two intermissions intact which also allows time for Charles Morgan's three set changes. Nothing too fancy. No stage wizardry to roll out or pop up the scenery — just simple but authentic scenic props (fine work by Deborah Gaouette) removed and rearranged during those intermissions. Sam Fleming's costumes further enhance the period aura.

In deference to the ever rising costs of putting on a show, four actors play multiple roles so that we have an outstanding six-member cast for a baker's dozen of characters. This actually ramps up the comedy, especially since the actors multi-task expertly with wigs and costumes helping to differentiate their characters. As translated, the dialogue is free of old-fashioned formality but without any jarring modernisms.

The play opens with Dr. Knock in an open motor car with Dr. Parpalaid (Patrick Husted believably segueing from cheerful bluster to outraged amazement). Knock has just purchased Parpalaid's practice in a small community whose extremely healthy citizens don't make it much of a bargain. Though Parpalaid assures his successor that being young he can take advantage of the fact that medicine is a rich soil with crops that will grow with careful tending, it looks as if the younger man has been duped.

But don't feel sorry for Knock. He sees opportunity lurking beneath Parpalaid's empty promises. He sends Parpaloid and his wife (Patti Perkins, in the first of three amusing roles) off to their new city life with these parting wordss: "My dear colleague, I have a feeling that you've bungled the most marvelous opportunity. And to use your own metaphor, your crop has been a harvest of weeds where you might have had a burgeoning garden. You should be leaving here dripping with gold, sitting on a downy mattress of gilt-edged assets: you, madame, should have a triple row of pearls around your neck, the two of you riding in a shiny limousine and not, certainly not, this monument to the eighteenth century."

I'm not giving away any surprises when I tell you that what follows shows Knock making good on his over-confident plans. The surprises and laughs come not from if he does it but how. (basically he finds attention-demanding, fee producing symptoms where non existed). Knock has us marveling at his audacity and, ultimately, at the repercussions his quackery has on the sleepy little town. No wonder the word "knockisme" remains in the French lexicon as a definition for gullibility!

While the first act could, like that cranky motor car, use a bit of revving up, it does serve to set us up for the high jinx of Dr. Knock's harvesting the infertile weeds of the Parpalaid medical office into a garden dripping with fees from all the healthy patients he's sent to their beds. This being a comedy, don't count on Knock to get his comeuppance.

In our over-scheduled lives a doctor who perscribes bed rest instead of a potentially painful test doesn't really sound so bad, does he?

A bit of trivia: The same Harley Granville Barker whose plays Mr. Kaikkonen so ably directed for the Mint, translated Dr. Knock, Or The Triumph Of Medicine for English speaking audiences. Wouldn't be nice — and timely — if the Mint could revive Granville Barker's Voysey Inheritance.
Dr. Knock, Or The Triumph Of Medicine
Playwright: Jules Romains (2885-1972)
Translator/Director: Gus Kaikkonen
Cast: Scott Barrow (Jean/Bernard/First Farmer), Thomas M. Hammond (Dr. Knock),Jennifer Harmon (Lady in Black/ Madame Remy), Patrick Husted (Dr. Parpalaid), Chris Nixon (Town Crier/Second Farmer/M. Mousquet). Patti Perkins (M. Parpalaid/Lady in Violet/Maid)
Sets: Charles Morgan
Lighting: William Armstrong
Costumes: Sam Fleming
Sound: Jane Shaw
Props: Deborah Gaqouette
Hair & Wigs: Gerard James Kelly
Stage Manager: Melissa M. Spengler
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
Mint Theater Company, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd floor 212/315-0231 or
From 4/14/10; opening 5/10/10; closing 6/06/10
Tuesday through Thursday at 7 PM, Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM, and Sunday at 2 PM.
Tickets are $55. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at May 5th press preview
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