May 22, 2010

Jules Romains’s “Doctor Knock, or the Triumph of Medicine” (1923) is as funny as a play can be. It’s also as scary as a play can be. The Mint Theater Company’s New York production does full justice to both aspects.

Under the expert direction of Gus Kaikkonen, who also nimbly translated from the French, six actors play 13 parts to powerful effect. The central figure is Knock, a doctor who builds his practice by telling everyone they’re sick.

Louis Jouvet created the role and played it almost annually on stage and three times on screen. His Knock was owlish and mesmerizing, with a faintly funereal tone.

The current Knock, Thomas M. Hammond, is distinguished by a sometimes smiling, sometimes stunned silence. He also combines grave concern with dogged solicitude and the most guarded optimism.

Knock has purchased, on the installment plan, a medical practice in St. Maurice, a godforsaken mountain town. Its sturdy inhabitants require little medical attention, which is as much as they’ve been getting from Parpalaid, their laid-back, lazy doctor.

People pay only once a year for rare consultations and even rarer treatment. They carry on with minor ignored ailments till about 50, and quietly drop dead. This is what Knock, a medico with business genius, sets out to change.

He inveigles the town crier, the druggist and the schoolmaster to spread word of his weekly free consultations. Everyone who shows up gets hooked by Knock’s diagnoses, which guarantee that the patients will pay and pay.

“People simply are more or less sick, with more or less numerous diseases that progress more or less rapidly,” is Knock’s philosophy. “Now naturally, tell people they are well, they’re only too happy to believe you. But why lie to them? The only excuse a responsible doctor could have for such a diagnosis is that he already has too many patients.”

In three acts covering three months, Knock persuades locals and folks from far and wide that they are dangerously ill. Doubletalk, charts, maps, illustrations, ominous hints and solicitous house visits are among his diabolical tools. It all leads to riches for him and a spine-chilling hilarity for us.

The dozen other roles are winningly handled by Patrick Husted, Patti Perkins, Scott Barrow, Chris Mixon, and Jennifer Harmon. Also laudable are Charles Morgan, Sam Fleming and William Armstrong for, respectively, scenery, costumes and lighting.

If you have ever had anything to do with medicine –and who hasn’t? — see this play.