May 12, 2010

What if life itself were a pre-existing condition?

That’s one of the screwy avenues of thought explored in Jules Romains’s delightful “Doctor Knock, or the Triumph of Medicine,” a 1923 spoof of the arrogance of the medical profession, now being produced by the Mint Theater. It’s a play that once again proves that one of the best ways to be topical is to look to the past.

When Dr. Knock (splendidly played by a chilling Thomas M. Hammond) replaces the old-fashioned doctor in a small town in France, he turns health into big business with the help of a relativistic philosophy that provides intellectual justification for sending almost everyone to bed.

“To get sick, what does that mean? That’s a worn-out idea,” he argues with the conviction of an academic in love with his own trendy theory. “It doesn’t hold up against modern science. Like health. What’s that? Just a word. It could easily be erased from our vocabulary.”

Gus Kaikkonen stages his witty translation with a finely tuned rhythm that takes advantage of the multitude of broadly gullible residents, including the easily seduced town crier (Chris Mixon), the earnest teacher (Scott Barrow) and the wealthy Lady in Violet (Patti Perkins). There is devilish pleasure in watching the doctor put his plan into motion, but there are hints that this is more than a sales job.

Arguing that sickness and health are just opposite ends of a continuum, Dr. Knock, who majored in romance languages, gives free consultations to recruit consumers and then inevitably finds something to be concerned about.

But if he’s guilty of too much treatment, his gentle predecessor, Dr. Parpalaid (Patrick Husted), could be accused of too little. Mr. Hammond slyly underplays his part, making it seem at times as if he had conned himself. And what he is selling actually sounds like an extreme version of the contemporary push toward preventive medicine.

Critics of market-driven medicine will enjoy this play, but so will Tea Party protesters who worry about “death panels.” Romains finds common ground in this polarized debate with an insight that remains perceptive. We trust doctors much more than we do lawyers, politicians or journalists — and that makes them potentially dangerous. In this case, hilariously so.