Robert Icke’s The Doctor, “very freely adapted” from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 Professor Bernardi, is a powerful, riveting play of ideas that updates, modernizes and anglicizes the Schnitzler play. Directed by Icke (revival restaged by Anthony Almeida) as he did his reimagined productions of Hamlet and The Oresteia last summer also at the Park Avenue Armory, the cast play their parts to the hilt led by the mesmerizing Juliet Stevenson, one of Britain’s greatest stage actresses who has only appeared in New York once before in the New York City Opera’s 2003 revival of A Little Night Music.
Schnitzler’s play is a scathing condemnation of anti-Semitism and faith versus science set in pre-World War I Vienna. Icke’s version reduces Schnitzler’s 19 speaking roles plus anonymous servants to 11 though in the fourth sequence six of the actors double as other characters and one actor plays two people at different times. This version, set now in an unnamed English language country with a prime minister and a custom of drinking tea, deals with anti-Semitism but he also adds the hot button issues of race, gender, sexuality, abortion, transgender youth, same-sex marriage, the social media, identity, and tribal grouping. Icke also complicates the production by casting women as men, white actors for Black, etc. Some identities remain ambiguous as to gender. This should be too much for one play but, The Doctor is so interesting and played with such intensity that it succeeds in spite of being too crowded for comfort.
Stevenson plays Dr. Ruth Wolff, a brilliant research scientist and a co-founder and director of the Elizabeth Institute, a teaching hospital that researches dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease. A 14-year-old patient is brought in dying from sepsis caused by a home induced abortion after which she did not request treatment. Though she is dying, Dr. Wolff has gotten her stabilized but she is in a kind of delirious euphoria where she thinks her (non-existent) boyfriend is coming to pick her up and that she is being discharged soon. At this moment, a Catholic priest arrives and demands to see the patient; he claims he has been sent by her parents to give her the last rites. However, according to Dr. Wolff that would be detrimental to her condition as she does not know that she is dying. In addition, as the patient is underage, her religious convictions are unknown, and her parents are out of the country, legally the decision is that of the doctor in charge. When the priest attempts to push his way in, Dr. Wolff puts a hand on his shoulder to stop him. They are then informed that the patient has died. (We later find out that someone unauthorized has told her about the priest’s visit.) Unfortunately, the last rites can only be given while the penitent is still alive.
And that might have been the end of the matter. Unfortunately, the story reaches the social media either from the devout parents or the angry priest. An online petition demands action to be taken and raises “the issue that Christian patients need Christian doctors.” It turns out that Dr. Wolff is Jewish and that under her stewardship the Institute has hired a great many women and Jews. In addition, the fact that the priest was Black (although played by a white actor so that we at first are not aware of this) has added a racial component to the situation. Events spiral out of control and eventually it becomes a cause célèbre. When a great many members of the Board resign, the doctors of the Executive Committee of the Institute all take sides. It turns out that Dr. Wolff has made a great many enemies over the 20 years of her directorship.
As played by Stevenson, Ruth Wolff is arrogant, supercilious, imperious and peremptory towards her staff. She is a difficult person to like but she is universally admired for her sterling abilities and integrity. As always Stevenson plays the role at such a pitch without letting up for a moment that it is impossible to take your eyes off of her (a quality demonstrated by the late Glenda Jackson in her stage performances). It is a performance that is certain to become legendary for its intensity and ferocity.
The rest of the cast is equally interesting though as they are addressed by first names on stage and listed in the program by their last names it is often difficult to put the two together. Dr. Wolff’s nemesis played by Naomi Wirthner’s Dr. Roger Hardiman is smooth, oily and absolutely treacherous. On the other hand, Doña Croll’s Dr. Brian Cyprian is a model of integrity as well as the Institute’s moral compass. Preeya Kalidas as Jemima Flint, recently appointed Minister for Health, is the perfect bureaucrat, suave, polished and whose beliefs are never fully revealed. As both Father Jacob Rice and Mr. Ronan, the dead girl’s father, John Mackay demonstrates tremendous versatility, creating two distinctly opposite characters.
The smaller roles are equally well cast: as publicity director Rebecca Roberts, Mariah Louca is efficient and capable. Juliet Garricks as Charlie, Ruth’s partner who we never know is male or female, is a calming presence. Ruth’s school age neighbor Sami of indeterminate sexuality played by Matilda Tucker has all the energy and anger of the young. Jaime Schwarz is amusing as the new intern who is never allowed to state her name until she perpetrates an act of betrayal. As Dr. Paul Murphy, Daniel Rabin a white actor who announces halfway through the play that he is the highest ranking doctor of color in the institute plays him as definitely a man with a chip on his shoulder, while Chris Osikanlu Colquhoun as Dr. Michael Copley is a more rational individual. One assumes that the revival direction by Anthony Almeida is as ferocious as the original London productions staged by the author.
Icke believes in minimalist productions as evidenced from both his stagings of Hamlet and The Oresteia last year and The Doctor is no exception. Hildegard Bechtler who created both of those sets has again designed a single room that works for all five scenes: a semicircular space with a long modular table (which can be broken in two) surrounded by benches backed by a wooden wall and a sliding door in the center. This is situated on a revolving platform which occasionally turns to reveal additional angles to the institute’s board room. The design works beautifully to allow for instant transitions. Bechtler’s bland costumes for the doctors and other characters also keep the design from distracting from the play and its arguments. The subtle lighting by Natasha Chivers never intrudes on the action. Tom Gibbons’ sound design and composition are enhanced by Hannah Ledwidge’s drumming and additional sound compositions usually add to the onstage tension but occasionally seem to be too much of a good thing.
Not only is Robert Icke’s The Doctor a brilliant piece of work, it rescues Arthur Schnitzler’s masterpiece Professor Bernardi from the scrap heap by making it accessible to a new generation. It is also a provocative work which while it downplays the satire of anti-Semitism in the original adds most of the hot button topics of our time, something Schnitzler would most likely have approved. In Dr. Ruth Wolff, it gives Juliet Stevenson another role which she can sink her teeth into and she does not disappoint, giving a performance that should not be missed. The Doctor is currently the most exciting theatrical performance to be seen in New York at this time.
The Doctor (through August 19, 2023)
Originally produced by the Almeida Theatre, London
Wade Thompson Drill Hall at Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue at 67th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-933-5812 or visit http://www.ArmoryonPark.org
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes including one twenty minute intermission