Dr. Knock, Or The Triumph Of Medicine
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 5, 2010
A fascinating program note by Heather J. Violanti informs us that Jules Romains was one of the most widely produced playwrights in the world in the first half of the last century. But not in New York: my research turns up just one production of Dr. Knock or the Triumph of Medicine on Broadway, in 1928, which ran for only three weeks; and since then there has been one Broadway mounting (in French) in 1957 of another Romains play, and still another off-Broadway in 1960. All of which means...well, many different things, I suppose, but the takeaway for our purposes is that the Mint Theater Company has once again uncovered a buried dramatic treasure that the vast majority of theatre-goers have never had the chance to see (and probably have never even heard of before). Dr. Knock is great fun and startlingly contemporary in outlook and I highly recommend that you take it in while you have the opportunity.
The title character of this play is a 40-year-old physician, originally self-trained but now equipped with a proper diploma, who purchases the sleepy medical practice of a Dr. Parpalaid in the village of St. Maurice and applies modern methods to transform it into a money machine. I am loathe to give away much more, because Romains's ideas are delightful and sneak up on us even though they're in no way unfamiliar or surprising to contemporary audiences. The good doctor pronounces his name, eccentrically, K-nock (with a hard, rather than silent, "k"), and this is only one of his willfully contrary ways.
The play unfolds in three delightful, economically written acts. The first happens on the road to St. Maurice, in Dr. Parpalaid's dying automobile; the year is 1923. This short act is almost all expositional, yet leads us, at least a bit, down the garden path, which is part of Romains's topsy-turvy appeal. The next, central act depicts Dr. Knock's first day in his new practice in St. Maurice, in which he interacts with a charming procession of locals, including the Town Crier, the schoolteacher, the pharmacist, a pair of rowdy farmers, and a pair of elderly ladies. They're all wonderfully archetypal and, as Dr. Knock cannily reveals, utterly devoid of free will.
The final act brings Dr. Parpalaid back to St. Maurice three months later, as he (and we) get a look at how things have progressed for Dr. Knock during his first 90 days in action. Again, I will say no more: find out for yourself how the good doctor fares. And expect pertinent and very funny commentary on both the human predilection for hypochondria and the medical industry's desire for profit at the expense of common sense.
The Mint's production is very entertaining. Gus Kaikkonen has translated Romains's play and also directs, keeping the piece firmly rooted in a satirical realm that is only slightly heightened, well aware of the old saw that no one ever went broke overestimating the gullibility of humankind. Thomas M. Hammond, suave and sympathetic and just the right amount good-looking, embodies Dr. Knock elegantly, with a portrayal that builds in outlandishness without ever feeling over-the-top. Patrick Husted plays the older doctor with a blend of pomposity and reserve. Scott Barrow, Jennifer Harmon, Chris Mixon, and Patti Perkins comprise the rest of the ensemble, taking 11 roles among them and playing them all with comic flair and bravado. I think my favorite portrait here is Mixon's wonderfully befuddled Town Crier, but every one of these performers gets at least one plum assignment: the valet-turned-bellboy/orderly Jean (Barrow) is a study in misplaced dignity; the ancient and stooped Lady in Black (Harmon) is hilarious; and Patti Perkins's conflicted Mme. Parpalaid brings balance and humor to the first act.
Charles Morgan's set is beautifully detailed, from the surprising motorcar that greets the audience upon arrival to the doctor's examining room and hotel lobby that follow. Other design elements—costumes by Sam Fleming, lighting by William Armstrong, and sound by Jane Shaw—continue the Mint's tradition of rich and well-realized production value.
I don't know that I'd want Dr. Knock as my own physician, but I was very glad to make his acquaintance in this latest production from the company that constantly introduces us to intriguing mementos of our cultural past that we didn't even know existed.