All evening long, watching Kate Fodor’s sharp, tenderly sardonic new comedy, Rx (59E59 Theaters), I kept thinking of Ernst Lubitsch. Aficionados of the great German American filmmaker’s masterpieces, with their enchanting mixture of sweetness and sting, will know what I mean when I say that they might describe Fodor’s charming play as The Clinical Trial Around the Corner.
Fodor hasn’t literally copied Lubitsch or anybody else—as you might expect, the playwright of Hannah and Martin and 100 Saints You Should Know has a mind far too wide-ranging for that. She has simply taken a leaf from Lubitsch’s book by turning a classic boy-meets-girl romantic structure into a thornily funny image of today’s screwed-up world. She’s got the extra advantage, too, of a smart, precise, zestily dry production by Ethan McSweeny: every lunacy in its place, neatly labeled, and irresistible. Lubitsch, who trained at Max Reinhardt’s Berlin theater before beginning his directorial career, and who cannily pillaged 19th-century comedies and operettas as sources for his 1920s and ’30s American movie plots, would understand perfectly what Fodor and her director were up to.
Fodor’s boy and girl, both tremulously aware that they’ve gotten too old for those designations, are a pair of wage slaves lodged in the cubicles of urban corporate computerland, where even the office shelving has to be standard-issue. (The droll set by Lee Savage is a wedge of anally tidy blank walls, every segment of which pops open like a high-tech Advent card to reveal some piece of standardized furniture.) Meena (Marin Hinkle), who studied poetry in college and has published a volume of prose poems, drudges at the deeply unpoetic job of editing the “Piggeries” section of a trade journal called American Cattle and Swine Magazine.
Phil (Stephen Kunken), an M.D. whose lack of people skills has barred him from his chosen specialty, ER, serves time as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company and tests a new drug designed to alleviate “workplace depression.” Meena, who often finds her work bringing on the desire to weep uncontrollably, makes an optimal volunteer subject. All goes well until, inevitably, the sad-sack researcher and his dream-deferred subject discover that love is the best medication—or, as the sociologist Erving Goffman once put it, “Nothing exists like another person for bringing the world alive within oneself.”
Since such love is a giant no-no in clinical trials, Fodor has her dramatic action ready to hand. She winds it elegantly through a twisty series of interlocking ironies. The happier Phil and Meena make each other, the more she likes her job, and the more he yearns to ditch his. The increasing comic tension, heightened by blow-dart one-liners that pierce every aspect of workplace life and health, spills over, affecting Meena’s bullying, beleaguered boss (Michael Bakkensen), Phil’s hard-driving team leader (Elizabeth Rich), and even the dotty elderly widow (Marylouise Burke) whom Meena meets in the rarely visited department-store corner where she hides during her sob-fests.
McSweeny’s production moves at a rollicking clip while still allowing his actors full time for tenderness. As a result of this neat balancing act, Fodor’s silly, hapless, misguided characters start to become dear to us. We laugh at them as an index of the contemporary world’s foolishness while still loving them as people. Frequent theatergoers who have seen Hinkle and Kunken be mercurial, dashing, or sexy in numerous other roles will get a particular chuckle out of their transformation here into this endearing but resolutely nerdy pair of desk jockeys.
Bakkensen and Rich add classic supporting-cast charm—she in particular, with her bright-colored energy and turn-on-a-dime timing. Burke, who has become Off-Broadway’s version of the dithering matrons once incarnated in film and TV by Marion Lorne, again contributes her patented dither to the cheerful mix, this time with a new infusion of pathos. And dessert is served in the form of not one but two hilarious cartoon cameos by Paul Niebanck, first as an overeager marketing expert with bipolar tendencies and later as a mentally short-circuited researcher too fixated on emulating Einstein to tell his sedatives from his heartbeat accelerants. Lubitsch, who knew just how to heighten his main plots with laugh-provoking subordinate intrusions, would beam at this troupe’s efficacy.