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Philosophical Ventriloquism

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The Doctor's Dilemma

Writers' Theatre

We call them Socratic dialogues, but they're really monologues in disguise. Socrates sits down with a bunch of disciples--and soft touches--and goads them into saying what he wants to hear. Since the goading is done in such a way as to make the disciples think they figured things out for themselves, the discourse looks like logic rather than what it is: philosophical ventriloquism.

George Bernard Shaw's plays can get mighty Socratic.

Consider his 1906 foray into medical ethics, The Doctor's Dilemma. Its opening passages put as many as six doctors in a room, where they discuss the latest fashions in treatment. The newly knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon is a serious researcher whose latest breakthrough helps antibodies combat the bacillus that causes tuberculosis. Ridgeon's pal, Cutler Walpole, performs fad surgeries for the carriage trade, excising a fictitious organ called the nuciform sac. A poverty-stricken young clinician named Dr. Blenkinsop swears by greengage plums, while his social better, Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, insists on "stimulating the phagocytes" at all costs. The elder statesman of the group, old Sir Patrick Cullen, sits by and growls that it's all been done before. (The sixth doctor, Schutzmacher--a Jew who made his fortune guaranteeing cures--has, interestingly, been cut from this production.)

The interactions among these men of science are funny, erudite, socially/politically/culturally astute--and 100 percent Shaw. Just like a Socratic dialogue, the first act of The Doctor's Dilemma is a matter of one man talking to himself in voices. Philosophical ventriloquism.

It doesn't stop there, though. Near the end of the act Ridgeon receives a visit from the wife of a profoundly talented young artist, Louis Dubedat, who's contracted TB. Infatuated with the good and beautiful Mrs. Dubedat, Ridgeon agrees to treat Louis despite the fact that his caseload is already at its limit. Soon enough, however, Ridgeon makes a pair of crucial discoveries: (1) the noble Dr. Blenkinsop is also tubercular, and (2) Louis is not only a great artist but a larcenous asshole. Ridgeon has the resources to save only one man. Which to pick?

This setup seems calculated to yield a second act just like the first, full of the further chatter of Shavian mouthpieces speculating on the implications of each choice. And yes, there's a certain amount of that, both witty and remarkably informative (listening to these guys play God makes you want to thank the real one for the concept of patients' rights). But the great thing about Shaw--here and always--is his refusal to leave well enough alone. Ever the subversive even when it comes to subverting himself, Shaw resists the temptation to position Louis as just another Socratic dummy. The consumptive artist has his own unruly, compelling voice, his own sense of amoral rectitude. Not unlike Alfred Doolittle--the iconoclastic dustman who would turn up seven years later, in Pygmalion--Dubedat expresses a kind of exalted narcissism, an inspired Warholism, rendered heroic by talent and suffering. For all their apparent perfidy, his cons are guileless and weirdly true. "I believe in Michelangelo, Velasquez, and Rembrandt," he declares in a deathbed scene rendered no less affecting for having been orchestrated for the press, "in the might of design, the mystery of color, the redemption of all things by Beauty everlasting, and the message of Art that has made these hands blessed. Amen. Amen."

Naturally, he drives the doctors crazy--and naturally that's the point. Dying Louis is the life of The Doctor's Dilemma.

Speaking of life, some critics rejected the lively, cartoonish excess of Goodman Theatre's currently running Heartbreak House, saying it obscures Shaw's language in an attempt to cater to America's cultural ADD. Personally, I think the Goodman show does a great service, reminding us that--bouts of logorrhea not withstanding--Shaw was a vigorously popular playwright with a sharp sense of the silly. Michael Halberstam's Doctor's Dilemma for Writer's Theatre is more modest, more respectful, more decorously beautiful, a little duller, and therefore more likely to please the linguists. Still, it has its considerable pleasures--like Bradley Mott, playing Sir Ralph as Polonius, and Robert Scogin, harrumphing wisely as old Sir Patrick. Janet Ulrich Brooks is also entertaining, playing way over her years as Ridgeon's housekeeper. Jonathan Weir's Walpole has a great Queer Eye quality, all lit up as he is by the wonder of his own being. Best of all, Scott Parkinson takes Louis from plaintive childishness to a sybaritism so powerful you'd swear you can see horns, hooves, and a panpipe--and then on to an affecting, fey dignity.

Sadly, there's a hole where Ridgeon should be. Looking perpetually perplexed, Kevin Gudahl never manifests the priggishness that, mixed with lust, should become something dark, rancid, and distinctly Mr. Hyde-ish. If not for the vividness around it, this would be a killing absence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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