May 11, 2010

On Broadway, you play it safe or lose your shirt. If you want to revive a straight play, you pick something very, very familiar and cast a movie star as your lead. Otherwise, disaster beckons. All the more reason, then, to praise the tiny Off-Broadway troupes that specialize in performing forgotten but eminently stageworthy plays of the past. At the top of the list is the Mint Theater Company, whose dagger-sharp revivals of Rachel Crothers’s “Susan and God,” John Galsworthy’s “The Skin Game” and Harley Granville-Barker’s “The Madras House” rank high on my list of memorable nights on the aisle.

Even for so daring a company, the Mint’s latest venture would seem to be a stretch. If you’ve heard of “Dr. Knock, or the Triumph of Medicine,” you probably come from France, where Jules Romains’s most successful play is known to all educated citoyens, or England, where it’s been telecast twice by the BBC and revived on numerous occasions, most recently in 1994.

In America, by contrast, the play is unknown save to especially well-informed specialists. Yet “Dr. Knock,” written in 1923, is a knockout, a saber-toothed satire of the medical profession that could scarcely be more timely now that health-care reform is No. 1 with a hashtag on the list of hot political topics.

The eponymous doctor in question (Thomas M. Hammond) is a cool-headed young gent who began his climb to fame and fortune by spending a year as a ship’s doctor without benefit of medical training. Along the way he picked up an understanding of the peculiarities of human nature that he now means to apply on a much larger scale. He acquires a legitimate degree, purchases a sleepy country practice from an amiable, unambitious old codger (Patrick Husted) and resolves to introduce the fortunate folk of St. Maurice to the joys of preventive medicine—done his way.

The thing that sets Dr. Knock apart from his benighted colleagues is that he sees medicine less as an art than a business, one in which anyone who grasps the principles of modern marketing can make (so to speak) a killing. To this end he opens a free clinic, the purpose of which is to alert his new patients to the fact that they all appear to be suffering from hitherto unsuspected illnesses. (His slogan is “The healthy are merely closet invalids.”) The good people of St. Maurice have previously managed to squeak by on home remedies, but his methods are so effective that within three months the town hotel has been turned into an annex to his clinic and the bellboy is inserting thermometers into the hindquarters of dozens of happy hypochondriacs each day.

What is most interesting about the not-so-good Dr. Knock is that it isn’t altogether clear whether he’s a fraud or a zealot. At first glance he seems to be in it strictly for the money, but as the play progresses, you awaken to the possibility that he may actually be a demented idealist:

“To get sick, what does that mean? That’s a worn-out idea. It doesn’t hold up against modern science. . . . In my experience people simply are more or less sick, with more or less numerous diseases that progress more or less rapidly. Now naturally, tell people they’re well, they’re only too happy to believe you. But why lie to them?” One might almost be watching the pilot of a cable TV show hosted by a genial psychiatrist who firmly believes that everyone in America is suffering from depression.

I’m not even slightly surprised to report that the Mint is performing “Dr. Knock” with consummate savoir-faire. Gus Kaikkonen, who runs New Hampshire’s Peterborough Players and previously directed “The Madras House” for the Mint, has polished the script (which is being performed in his own idiomatic translation) until it gleams like a dueling saber, and Mr. Hammond’s urbane performance is frighteningly believable. He is supported by a team of five superior character actors, four of whom play multiple roles with flag-waving panache. Charles Morgan, the set designer, has managed to shoehorn a car, a doctor’s office and a hotel lobby onto the Mint’s stage, which is slightly bigger and rather less fancy than a walk-in closet, without breaking anything.

I never cease to marvel at how Jonathan Bank, the Mint’s artistic director, always manages to pull terrific plays of which I’ve never heard out of his seemingly bottomless hat. He’s done it again with “Doctor Knock.” Go—but take an aspirin first.