nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
C.J.D., part of the NEUROfest (a series of plays and performances about neurological conditions), is described by its author / performer James Jordan as “a story of human suffering and transcendence, full of interesting science, all told in a multi-mediated-piano-playing bit of agit-prop silliness.” Normally, I would formulate my own description, but his is a pretty thorough list of ingredients.
January 7, 2006
The agent of suffering is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (C.J.D.), a neurodegenerative disease marked by arrhythmic twitching, a staggering walk, and a swift deterioration of intellectual faculties. It can be both infectious and inherited, and unlike the decade or so Alzheimer’s takes for its onset and denouement, C.J.D. claims its victims—about 300 American sexagenarians annually—within a year of diagnosis. This is truly horrifying indeed. But the challenge in making a piece of theatre about the disease is that it must leave us with more than a sense of “Geez, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.”
Jordan, the sole performer and himself a neurologist in residence at Case Western’s University Hospitals of Cleveland, is a zany guy who is able to transition between silliness and sincerity with ease. One minute he’s playing the bongos in a grass skirt, and next thing you know he’s swooped down to the piano for some Beethoven. But the story he wishes to tell and the manner in which he wants to tell it are yet oil and water. His showmanship, his theatrical devises (including an arbitrarily applied voice-altering microphone), do not illuminate his subject—in fact, they undermine his passion.
And Jordan’s passion is precisely the point of this piece. We may describe an illness as dramatic, but it is difficult to really dramatize facts; the objective is to get to the human response: the terror, the humiliation, the humor in the experience of the illness. And he has something to say about a lot of things surrounding C.J.D.—the Bush administration and the people who voted him in; the dubious role of drug companies such as Pfizer in the health industry; the misperception of neurologists in contemporary medicine—but some of these topics are closer to the heart of this play than others. So there is, in fact, a passionate point to be made, but Jordan must sort through this abundance of ideas and convictions to build the argument he wishes to make.
C.J.D. is an entertaining ninety minutes. But C.J.D. can be more powerful than it is: transcending the lecture, the facts of the illness, and entering a more universal realm—the even more uncertain and bewildering phenomenon we call the human condition.