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Comedy With Teeth

Laura Jacqmin gets serious laughs from a dental society meeting.

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Dental Society Midwinter Meeting Chicago Dramatists

Every second counts in Dental Society Midwinter Meeting, a crisp comedy by local playwright Laura Jacqmin receiving its world premiere now at Chicago Dramatists. Jacqmin knows how to pare a situation down to its essence and reveal character with a few well-chosen words. In lesser hands, this tale of unhappy tooth jockeys might've been fodder for cheap gags and self-indulgent shtick. Instead Jacqmin and director Megan Schuchman deliver an inventive, offbeat study of human nature.

The 80-minute one-act is presented almost entirely in flashback. Three men and three women play multiple roles, reenacting the title meeting—held at a Marriott in Skokie one frigid January—as they narrate it story-theater style. Midwestern dentists have gathered to gain new insights into the art, craft, and science of their profession—and to take a deductible vacation away from their spouses and kids. The formal program includes seminars and breakout sessions on such topics as "Fluoride and Fluoridation: A History," as well as cautionary speeches about professional hazards like drug addiction and insurance fraud. But informally, it's all about swimming in the heated pool, hoarding samples from dental-supply vendors, late-night drinking, karaoke, and, of course, hooking up. "We're aching to fool around with people with exceedingly clean teeth," one man admits.

Hanging over the conference like a cloud is what one character calls a "scandal with a capital 'S.'" The dental society's illustrious president, Dr. Morris J. Morris Jr., has recently left his wife for a sexy young hygienist named Nina. What makes the scandal so scandalous isn't just the adultery but the fact that Morris has allowed Nina to perform advanced medical procedures, including extractions and root canal surgery—a shocking breach of ethics. Morris is scheduled to give the conference's closing address, and while his behavior has severely tarnished the society, it's also attracted 6,000 registrants who are just dying to see whether he'll turn up with Nina in tow.

The story builds to its climax in intriguingly digressive fashion, via a series of vignettes whose quirky content and casual, seemingly rambling style recall a Robert Altman film. Some are plain funny. A drunk couple plans to have sex, if only the woman can get her hotel-room key card to work. Two women gossip loudly in the swimming pool; that their pantomimed swimming isn't at all convincing makes the bit that much more amusing. But the humor gradually turns darker and deeper. A dentist finds herself torn between morality and self-interest, for instance, when she tries to cancel her contract with the vendor who sold her a teeth-bleaching product that turned out to be toxic to her vain patients.

And a couple scenes are downright poignant. In one, a lonely gay dentist gingerly puts the moves on a colleague because the guy reminds him of his former partner in business and love, whose malpractice destroyed both. In another, Morris—played by three actors simultaneously to suggest his fractured authority—is confronted by Nina, whose personal and professional lives are both in shambles.

The key to the play's success is Jacqmin's use of story theater as a distancing device. The approach—which includes choral speaking—allows her characters to comment on their own behavior as well as that of their fellow dentists, encouraging us to take a detached view of the action unfolding on Michael Mroch's sterile, white, bi-level set. (Anna Bravova's subtle lighting reflects the changing emotional tone.) Rather than try to get us absorbed in what we're watching, Jacqmin asks us only to observe and learn from the sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful interactions she chronicles.

Jacqmin's witty dialogue never goes for cheap laughs, and she understands that comedy writing is about sound as well as content. Her deftly structured dialogue provokes laughter not only with funny, oddball ideas but with a sly use of rhythm. And though she's not afraid to use profanity, she employs it sparingly, to punctuate a point rather than as a crutch. An intelligent cast—Dana Black, Rhonda Marie Bynum, Justin James Farley, Collin Geraghty, Rakisha Pollard, and Paige Smith—puts the material across with understated finesse.   

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