The Subtle Body is inspired by the actual historical figure of British physician John Floyer, who came up with a method of taking a patient’s pulse that is still standard practice hundreds of years later.
But playwright Megan Campisi’s main interest in him is clearly the good doctor’s fascination with China and Chinese medicine. The Subtle Body, now at 59 E 59 Theater through March 1, uses his visit to China, and his interaction with a Chinese physician, as an opportunity to explore differences between the East and the West in medicine – and the contrast as well in culture, in language and in love. The East/West divide and the efforts to surmount it are a favorite subject of David Henry Hwang in such works as M. Butterfly and Chinglish, and the possibilities seem inexhaustible. What sounded especially intriguing about The Subtle Body is that it is a bilingual production first presented in a sold-out run in Shanghai, China.
Dr. Floyer (Michael Zlabinger), accompanied by his wife Charlotte (Stephanie Wright-Thompson), have hired a translator Wang (Johnny Wu) to speak to a venerable Chinese physician, Dr. Zhang (Ya Han Chang.) Dr. Floyer only speaks in English (with Mandarin subtitles) and Dr. Zhang only in Chinese (with English subtitles.) Both doctors are simultaneously amazed and aghast at each other’s medical methods and procedures; Dr. Floyer is especially impressed that Dr. Zhang can accurately diagnose him and his wife simply by feeling their wrists and looking into their mouths. But he resists embracing Chinese medicine: “It might work in practice, but does it work in theory?”
Meanwhile, the playwright has invented a love story between Dr. Floyer’s wife and his translator, which could indicate a kind of lack of faith in the audience’s patience for a medical comedy, but at least gives added stage time to Ya Han Chang, the stand-out in the cast of four (and the only one who speaks only in Chinese.) She plays both the male Chinese doctor and Wang’s first wife. Wang has no intention of divorcing that first wife, and she doesn’t want him to either; Wang’s having a second wife, she points out, gives her more prestige by making her a first wife.
If all this exploration of cultural differences offers the promise in theory of intellectual stimulation and entertainment, that promise is undermined by the execution in practice. Director Michael Leibenluft seems to treat The Subtle Body as a Restoration Comedy that is anything but subtle, with Zlabinger in particular as Dr. Foyer affecting a foppish manner and precious British accent that feels high school fake, but is at least distracting and annoying.