Doctors Jane & Alexander
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 31, 2009
The title characters of Edward Einhorn's compelling and very entertaining new play Doctors Jane and Alexander are the playwright's mother and grandfather. She (Jane Einhorn, still living) is a psychologist and sometime artist who suffered a stroke several years ago. He (Alexander S. Wiener, died in 1976) was a renowned scientist who discovered the Rh factor in blood and also an amateur composer.
One of the main ideas of Doctors Jane and Alexander is: what do you do when you realize you aren't (and probably won't ever be) as famous as you intended to be? Jane was a dynamo in her younger days, developing a theory in behavioral psychology about friendship and honesty that became the subject of her Ph.D. thesis that, she thought, might position her to outclass her celebrated father. But then she halted her research, and one of the things that her son Edward wants to understand is why she did that. Edward—who, notwithstanding the play's title, is in fact the protagonist of this autobiographical/documentary work—speaks frankly about the lack of remuneration and acclaim that his career as a children's book author and independent theatre playwright/director/impresario has brought him. As the grandfather says so eloquently in Kaufman & Hart's You Can't Take It With You, how many of us would be willing to settle when we're young for what we eventually get?
Einhorn has packed many other notions into this often whimsical and just as often serious play. He explores his mother's mental illness (possibly bipolar disorder; apparently her father also suffered from it), and spends a lot of very riveting stage time showing us the effects of her stroke—many of the play's best scenes are set in the assisted living center where she resides, or in a doctor's office where a slightly unctuous and entirely apologetic physician tries to evaluate Jane's progress by asking her questions that, in any other circumstance, would be hopelessly humiliating for her.
He also traces the arc of his grandfather's career, abetted in the play by his older brother David, who tells us that he read the stories of Alexander Wiener (from medical texts, from a somewhat sensational book called Twelve Against Crime that recounts Wiener's service to forensic medicine, and even from a comic book) to young Edward when they were growing up. Interspersed among recollections/recreations of his grandfather's life are some of Wiener's own compositions, played on the piano and/or sung.
But for me, more than anything else, Doctors Jane and Alexander is a play about memory and inspiration—about how a young artist finds his muse and crafts work that matters to him. The dramatic composition that came to mind over and over again as I watched this play was Sunday in the Park with George. This meditation on fame and expectation (or lack thereof) is a raw, intimate, and ultimately quite moving portrait of how a playwright shapes and molds his characters to come up with something original and his own.
Einhorn directs the production with clarity and wit, on a very simple (uncredited) set with canny costumes by Carla Gant. Four actors masterfully portray real members of the playwright's family: Timothy Babcock as Alexander Wiener is the shadowy eccentric that he must have seemed to his grandsons; Peter Bean offers comic relief and contrast as the playwright's portrait of his older brother David; and Jason Liebman is warm and articulate as the author's alter ego, Edward. Firmly in the center of things is Alyssa Simon in a brilliant performance as Jane that captures the complexity of this woman and reveals her as she is today and as she was as a girl and a young woman, sometimes simultaneously. I've been watching Simon's work on stage for about a decade, and she is reaching new heights of achievement here.
Talaura Harms, Josh Mertz, and Phoebe Silva are invaluable as a kind of chorus, taking dozens of other roles in the story.
Doctors Jane and Alexander feels like it may have been grueling to write, but it's joyous and uplifting to watch. Who know what lies ahead in Einhorn's journey toward becoming whatever it is he is destined to become.