When Men In White was first produced back in 1933 it was groundbreaking enough to win a Pulitzer for drama and be adapted into a Clark Gable movie. As a melodrama about young doctors in love it influenced generations of soap operas, romance comics and television medical dramas. Even though its influence is eternal, the play itself is rather dated. The Seeing Place Theater is no doubt aware of the dated nature of the piece, but their new off-off Broadway production of it demonstrates that many issues regarding the medical industry have remained the same over the last 80 years.
Of course a lot of things have changed in the last 80 years, especially medical technology. This production is set in the original time period and the dialog hasn’t been updated to remove some of the cornier jargon. “Give her an opium suppository” is used repeatedly and without intended humor. It elicited a chuckle from the audience on the night of this review and is probably going continue getting laughs through the entire run.
Some of the dated references are surprisingly relevant though. It takes place in 1933, just a few years after the start of the Great Depression and is set in a hospital that ends up on hard times. The doctors joke about the government taking over the medical industry, and about how people are too poor to afford healthcare. These lines also elicited laughs from the crowd, but in a more thoughtful manner as it became obvious that some modern problems are actually universal truths (Will the Space Men of 2103 look back on present day medical dramas and chuckle at the hooplah over Obamacare)?
Despite its success back in 1933, modern audiences are likely to find it slow-paced. The running time is over two hours, and it takes nearly all of the first Act to reveal the true dramatic thrust of the story. For that first hour or so the audience watches Doctor George Ferguson (Brandon Walker) as he tries to balance his personal life with his duties as a young doctor. He’s talented and has the potential to be a great doctor one day but only under the tutelage of his mentor of Dr. Hochberg (Mark Goham). Along the way Ferguson deals with incompetent bureaucrats, botched medical procedures and a pack of lesser men who don’t take their work as seriously as he does.
Alas, the one thing this doctor just doesn’t understand is… the human heart.
The idea is corny now, but Men In White is possibly the story that established the cliché of a man of science so dedicated to his work that he neglects the woman he loves. At the time the show was first produced the sordid tale of Ferguson’s love life would certainly have been shocking but, for modern audiences it is the stuff of soap operas.
Yet within those melodramatic twists are some issues that are still relevant in the 21st Century. It takes place before legalized abortion, and a certain character has to deal with a young lady “in trouble”. The script shows rational people discussing abortion without modern politics and helps illustrate America’s history with this issue.
A great deal of effort has been taken to recreate the historical setting. The hospital equipment used onstage is authentic and period-accurate, including an antique hospital bed. The costumes and many set pieces are also period accurate as is the general look of incidental items around the set.
Unfortunately music from the 1935 ballet Romeo & Juliet is used as well. This style of music only serves to point out the melodramatic nature of the story (Most notably when played during an operation that happens right onstage).
The devotion to historical authenticity carries over into some of the performances, but not all. A few cast members nail the distinct cadence of the early thirties, notably Brian Charles Rooney, but others come across as modern men and women who are out-of-place in their surroundings.
This production of Men In White is hampered by the script’s slow plot, and performances that often fail to catch the snappiness intended in the dialog. However, it still functions as a time capsule that provides a look into the origins of the medical drama (Not to mention an ultra-obscure bit of Three Stooges trivia) It is playing through November 24th at the ATA Theater in Manhattan. Tickets and more information are available at www.seeingplacetheater.com.