The Mint Theater which specializes in uncovering forgotten gems from the past has such a remarkable track record that one comes to their latest offerings with a huge sense of expectation. Beginning with American and British plays, the Mint in recent years has branched out to works from the German, Irish and French repertory. One is hardly ever let down. In 2010, they rediscovered the delightful French comedy, the 1923 Dr. Knock, by the prolific Jules Romains. So it is with a great sense of disappointment to report that their latest, the 1930 Donogoo, a second play by Romains, is not a success. This satire of a stock market scam is not funny enough as a comedy, not farcical enough to provoke delight, nor satiric enough to make incisive comments about the world we live in.
What the production does have is a ravishing scenic design made up almost entirely of colorful and witty projections (sometimes animated) by Roger Hanna &Price Johnston for the play’s 23 tableaux. Moving from Paris to Marseilles, Saigon, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and ultimately to the mythical Brazilian city of Donogoo-Tonka, the projections create marvelous environments instantaneously. These designs have the wit and surprise that the script lacks. Gus Kaikkonen who translated and directed Dr. Knock has fulfilled the same duties here. While his new version is clear and lucid, his direction is too realistic and literal for this rather flat, talky play. With all the Ponzi schemes exposed in recent years, it is possible that what was startling and new in 1930 has dated badly.
The depressed Lamendin is about to jump off one of the bridges of Paris when he is stopped by his friend Benin whose advice sends him to Dr. Yves Le Trouhadec, a famous geographer and professor of geography at the College of France, whose dearest dream is to be elected to the Academy of Sciences. The only drawback is that in Volume Three of his major opus ten years before he had written about the South American city of Donogoo-Tonka. Unfortunately, there have been rumors that Donogoo does not exist which would severely crimp his chance to become a member of the academy.
Lamendin is energized to create a stock market scam and with the help of banker Margajet, he sells shares in a gold mining corporation in the mythical city, triggering speculation about Donogoo all of over the world. The resulting publicity causes many adventurers to rush to South America to make their fortunes. Just as the fraud is about to be exposed, Lamendin is talked into going there himself and founding the city, which unknown to him has already been started by wily prospectors. The play suggests just how gullible the populace is: you can convince them of anything if you appear to be an expert.
The play’s very talky first act which unfolds in 13 scenes is a sort of prologue to the real action which depicts the exploration of Brazil to find Donogoo. The play picks up in its second half which takes another ten scenes to play out its story. What should be a wild farce is acted in a very realistic style which undercuts the absurdity of the situation – though we know that stranger things have happened. As the roles as written are rather conventional, it needs bravura acting to pull it off as a satire. Unfortunately, the actors are mostly rather staid in their approach. James Riordan as the hero (or rather anti-hero) Lamendin begins as rather weak but becomes more swashbuckling in the second act when he realizes he is going to get away with his scam.
The usually reliable George Morfogen as the slightly mad scientist is much too down-to-earth to make this role colorful. Ross Bickell as the banker who helps Lamendin with the ruse has more of a handle on this kind of comedy, though his role as written is more tongue-in-cheek. The rest of the cast of 13 who play 52 listed roles and up to nine parts each are hard to distinguish. However, among notable performances are Megan Robinson as all of the women from Le Trouhadec’s Housekeeper to a Brazilian Travel Agent to Leila, an Indian maiden, Brian Thomas Vaughn as an impassioned adventurer with strong ideas, and Vladimir Versailles and Paul Pontrelli as a series of amusing ethnic types. As Lamendin’s friend Benin, Mitch Greenberg is nonchalant and imperturbable without making much of an impression. Costume designer Sam Fleming has done a fine job of creating clothing for the many roles and locales.
While Jules Romains may be one of the most produced playwrights in France as a result of Dr. Knock, Donogoo, a comedy, in Gus Kaikkonen’s production, is a misfire. Not all successful plays of previous generations pass the test of time. The Mint Theater production, however, is memorable for its scenic design which showcases the talents of Roger Hanna &Price Johnston and displays the cleverest décor currently to be seen in New York.
Donogoo (through July 27, 2014)
Mint Theater, 311 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.minttheater.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission