In “Chasing Jack,” nothing is as it seems. That’s true of Dr. Jack Chase, the heart surgeon who is being sued for malpractice after his patient died on the operating table. And it’s true of the play itself by John S. Anastasi, a ham-handed courtroom drama that is full of increasingly implausible plot twists, so much so that I normally wouldn’t give it much chance for survival.
But it’s playing at the Jerry Orbach Theater, which is part of the Theater Center, that odd upstairs complex on 50th and Broadway that is home to “The Perfect Crime,” which is also full of plot twists, and counts as one of the most baffling plays I’ve ever seen; what’s most baffling about it is that it holds the record as the city’s longest-running straight play, launched in 1987 and one of the first to reopen after the pandemic shutdown. Its star Catherine Russell, in it from the beginning, holds the world record for the most performances as a character in a play. Russell is also the general manager of the Theater Center; she was staffing the box office at the performance of “Chasing Jack” that I attended. If anybody can keep a mediocre play going against all odds, it’s Russell
Dr. Chase (Emanuele Secci) is a caring doctor, who says things directly to the audience like “Heart surgery is the most fun a human being can have out of bed,” and “every time I step into the operating room, I change lives,” and he takes on so many patients for free that Robert (Richard Clodfelter), his partner in their medical practice, complains to him that he’s playing Mother Theresa. But Dr. Chase also has a serious gambling addiction; we know this because he carries around a deck of cards, solving disputes with colleagues by asking them to pick a card, and because he says things into his phone like “Ten g’s at Belmont” and “A dead man? I’m not a dead man! Chill, you’ll get it. You’ll get it! “
The patient he lost, Michael, was the husband of Rebecca (Alejandra Mangini), a nurse with whom Chase works. Robert decides to hire the best malpractice lawyer he knows to represent both him and his partner — Taylor Barrett (Rachel Frost) who is Chase’s estranged daughter; they haven’t talked for six years.
As the play unfolds — alternating between dry courtroom testimony, Dr. Chase’s meant-to-be-reflective monologues directly addressed to the audience, and sedately steamy or stormy flashback scenes – a big secret is revealed about each of the major characters (and some of the minor ones.) Was this meant to increase suspense? My reaction to each revelation was not a quickened pulse but a roll of the eyes. The play undermines its potential as a thriller. We learn several reasons, for example, why Dr. Chase would have been motivated not just to perform a risky operation but to kill Michael. Yet the audience is never allowed to doubt his noble motives for that operation, even when we learn of his other, less than honorable activity. (I’m trying to be honorable here by avoiding spoilers.)
The playwright wants us to see Dr. Chase as a flawed human being, but one with an admirable dedication to doing the right thing. Perhaps Anastasi intends “Chasing Jack” as a cautionary portrait of a compulsive gambler. In one clumsy monologue, the character baldly explains away what the discerning New York theatergoer is likely to see as holes in the plot; if his actions sometimes make no sense, he tells us, that’s because he’s an addict, and addicts do things that make no sense. The explanation doesn’t wash. The central character, and the drama as a whole, come off as contrived – less film noir than soap opera territory.
Director Peter J. Loewy has done what he can with an obviously low budget and a cramped stage. As is usually the case with such misfires, the cast is blameless. Their acting is reminiscent of the theater’s namesake, Jerry Orbach, when he starred in the TV legal procedural “Law and Order.” – usually low-key, just the facts; and the right level of intensity when the lines call for it. The scenes are even punctuated by a sound effect straight out of that TV series, one of the contributions by sound designer and composer Mark Baron. Of course, the underscoring is not reminiscent of Orbach’s other claim to fame, as a Tony winning song-and-dance man, star on Broadway of such musicals as “Promises, Promises,” the original production of “Chicago,” and the hit revival of “42nd Street.” There is no music in “Chasing Jack,” metaphorically speaking; it doesn’t sing.
Still, the location may indicate the producer’s hope for “Chasing Jack.” If I had to guess the main reason the theater is named after Orbach, it’s that he was an original cast member of “The Fantasticks,” the world’s longest running musical.
Jerry Orbach Theater
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $39.50 – $49.50
Written by John S. Anastasi
Directed by Peter J. Loewy
Produced by Rachel Stange
Master carpenter Joel Connelly, lighting designer Jak Prince, sound design and original music by Marc Baron,
Cast: Emanuele Secci as Dr. Jack Chase, Robert Eigen as Judge Boyer, Dennis Brito as attorney Michael Ockerman, Richard Clodfelter as Dr. Robert Arnold, Rachel Frost as Taylor Barrett, Joel Shaw as medical expert witness Dr. Fox, Alejandra Mangini as Rebecca James, Caroline Sposto as medical expert witness Dr. Maxine Noel, understudies Samantha Ruston and Philip O’Gorman.