theater review

Physicians, Preen Thyselves: The Doctor

From The Doctor at Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Robert Icke likes to find the clean lines of classical drama in the murk of contemporary life. The British director has made a habit of taking hallowed works of theater and bringing them into the present with heavy revisions and sleek contemporary sets. Last summer, Park Avenue Armory brought in a double bill of his Hamlet, set in a Succession-esque court of Elsinore, and his Oresteia, in which Greek tragedies got squished and transmogrified into a courtroom drama. A year before that, the armory staged his take on Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People with an eye toward water-contamination crises like the one in Flint, Michigan. This summer, Icke returns with The Doctor — like all of the above except Enemy, it comes to the U.S. after an acclaimed run in London — in which he takes Professor Bernhardi, a relatively unfamiliar 1912 Arthur Schnitzler play, as the basis for a modern parable about science, religion, antisemitism, and identity politics. It’s handsome and well-acted, but what’s positioned as a grand thought experiment quickly becomes slick and self-congratulatory.

The inciting incident in The Doctor, as in the Schnitzler play, comes when a Jewish doctor bars a Catholic priest from performing last rites for a young woman who is dying after an abortion. When she dies, the incident becomes a cause célèbre, as the doctor is targeted with antisemitic harassment and politicking within the medical institute. Schnitzler, a Jewish man trained as a doctor himself, was observing the tensions of early 20th-century Vienna (Tom Stoppard references his work often in Leopoldstadt, which comes to mind often while watching The Doctor). Icke moves things to modern Britain, warping the situation around the red-hot issues of the current discourse. His Bernhardi becomes the no-nonsense Ruth Wolff (played with a stern glare by Juliet Stevenson), who insists that she does not go for identifying with groups but was raised Jewish and is implied to be queer. Her private medical institute depends on wealthy donors as well as on government funding. Once her confrontation with the priest leaks and a petition denouncing Wolff starts circulating online (she is, of course, disdainful of internet discourse), the other doctors at the institute start worrying about the fallout while arguing positions that serve their own self-interest.

Icke propels the drama forward on a nearly bare semicircular set with a pair of tables and benches rotating on a turntable while a drummer in a glass box overhead provides pulse-quickening percussion. Initially, I got caught up in the escalating stakes of the predicament Icke sets up, but he soon starts moving the goalposts of the debate, and he fumbles into a messy depiction of identity politics. Icke has cast actors across genders and races, and although the priest is played by a white actor (John MacKay), it isn’t until later on that one of Wolff’s colleagues points out that the character is a Black man. The point, perhaps, is to make the audience examine unconscious bias — would you read this interaction differently had you known initially that the character is Black? — but Icke seems disdainful, turning identity into just another posture. Characters will sometimes not reveal their race or gender until after several scenes with them have passed, creating a strange guessing game. In the second act, Wolff is grilled on a television panel by a group of peacocking experts from the right and left joined by a Catholic scholar and a postcolonialism expert, and a character questioning whether Wolff is “woke” is set up for the most ridicule. If you go after Icke on those terms, he has already built a defense.

According to Stevenson, Icke is setting up a situation where “nobody’s right. Nobody’s wrong. We can explore all the angles because it’s safe.” But as much as Icke allows that Wolff is willfully obtuse, he still tilts the play toward a scolding, color-blind centrism. The people drawing swastikas on Wolff’s car are bad, but so are those trying to bring race and gender into the conversation. The most fervent dialogue comes in speeches that denounce putting people’s identities ahead of their common humanity — there’s a grand aria for one character on that theme that comes right before the act break and accelerates into a reference to Nazism — and he writes paper arguments for characters attacking Wolff from the other side. Wolff keeps insisting that she is trying to approach medicine as an objective, scientific practice as opposed to the hazy mysteries of faith. The play acknowledges that medicine relies on its own guesswork but shies away from exploring the inherent biases of medical research. I kept thinking of how Alice Birch, in the TV series Dead Ringers, involved the gruesome history of gynecology in her wickedly funny drama. In The Doctor, Icke, like Wolff herself, holds on to a more willfully naïve image of science as a pure thing.

That might all be more palatable if Icke didn’t lose track of the characters and humor along the way. Professor Bernhardi, according to Schnitzler’s own subtitle, is a comedy (though one about weighty themes), but The Doctor rarely has room to be funny. Icke directs his cast toward overseriousness and has staged the drama under grim fluorescent lighting. He even has Stevenson — as Ben Platt does in Parade — sit onstage under the glare of those lights for part of intermission. The sanctimony of people caught up in a cancellation and the ones going after them can both be rich satirical fodder (think of Lydia Tár, who I assume has a regular correspondence with Ruth Wolff), but Icke’s humor doesn’t cut through the skin. His jokes tend to fall back on Wolff’s insistence on proper grammar. She’s a stickler for the difference between literally and figuratively — not exactly the freshest material. Occasionally, we see her home life rendered in roughly generic terms. Wolff spends time with a teenage trans girl, played by Matilda Tucker, who speaks with a more than intentionally annoying approximation of Gen-Z lingo (Wolff hates how often she uses the word like) and has a caring partner, played by Juliet Garricks, who is more an idea than a person.

That lack of specificity left me feeling for Stevenson, an able and precise actor who works hard to hold The Doctor together as it becomes more and more slippery. She’s a regular on the British stage though rarely seen in New York. I have to admit, I’m most familiar with her work from listening to her excellent audiobook recordings of Jane Austen novels. Her delivery is perfect for bone-dry social satire. In The Doctor, Stevenson wields that same elocution in the service of Wolff’s crisp professionalism, emphasizing how the character has bought into all of these codes of conduct — she’s very insistent on being referred to by her full title — that are now being upset by the new rules of social media. Stevenson is excellent when on guard, jumping into the mêlée of The Doctor’s group argument and, at one point, sprinting around the stage. But she’s more intriguing when Wolff is set back on her heels and becomes self-reflective. The difficulty is that there’s just not enough of that side of the character: You can see the arc of the public downfall clearly, yet the private person inside remains obscure.

The Doctor is at Park Avenue Armory.

Physicians, Preen Thyselves: The Doctor