The dramatic incident that propels “The Doctor” is clear: A Jewish physician refuses to allow a Catholic priest to administer last rites to a 14-year-old girl who is dying from sepsis after a self-induced abortion that went wrong. The doctor bars the priest’s entry into the girl’s hospital room because she doesn’t know she’s dying, “she thinks she’s going to be fine,” the doctor says, so “I am crystal clear” that the presence of a priest (without the girl having requested one) would make her final moments full of panic and distress. The doctor’s decision leads to a public storm – protests, panic, government intervention, violence — that threatens the medical institution that the doctor leads, the doctor’s livelihood, even the doctor’s life.
This was the premise of the 1912 play by the Austrian Jewish dramatist Arthur Schnitzer entitled “Professor Bernhardi,” which is the source of the latest of the radical adaptations that British director Robert Icke has brought to the Park Avenue Armory over the past couple of years. These include “Hamlet,” “Enemy of the People,” which I found striking, and “Oresteia,” which I found numbing. (Earlier he adapted “1984” on Broadway.) If I had to come up with one word for “The Doctor,” it would be: confusing.
But “The Doctor” deserves more than a one-word summary. It turns complex intellectual debates into a tense and intriguing drama that serves as a vehicle for the nuanced, intense, eminently watchable performance of Juliet Stevenson in the title role, her first on a New York stage in twenty years. As Dr Ruth Wolff she is unyieldingly arrogant and didactic, sure of her principles and the rightness of her worldview, but she somehow still manages a flicker of vulnerability.
And much of the confusion is deliberate — Icke’s effort to drive home the lack of clarity and consensus in the issues raised by the play in the aftermath of the confrontation between the doctor and the priest. It’s an intentional irony that Dr. Wolff’s favorite phrase, repeated numerous times throughout the play, is “I am crystal clear.”
The problem is the way that Icke chooses to dramatize an issue that goes beyond the many that Schnitzer explores in the original play. “The Doctor” still presents abortion, antisemitism, medical ethics, institutional politics, and the role of science versus religion in society, but they are to varying degrees downplayed in favor of an issue that Icke has added and seems to interest him the most — the modern-day rabbit hole of identity politics and cancel culture.
That the doctor, in Icke’s retelling, is still Jewish, but now a woman in modern-day England, is a change to which no one can object. Some theatergoers might even find it worthwhile that, late in the play, we learn that the priest, Father Jacob, is Black, even though he is portrayed by the actor John Mackay, who is white. This might suddenly put the two characters’ confrontation in a new light – although it’s something of a stacked deck that during that encounter Dr. Wolff called Father Jacob “uppity.” But Icke doesn’t stop there. Female actors are male characters, an Asian female actress is a white male character, a Black female actress is a Black male character who is said to look white (but doesn’t.) That the characters’ identities don’t match the actors’ is only slowly revealed, one by one. The revelations are surely meant to unmask our preconceived notions, but in an 11-member cast, these reveals are too numerous, and most of the characters too little developed, for the effect to be much more than a confused muddle.
Juliet Garricks portrays a character named Charlie who is Ruth’s “partner” but, given all the other character switcheroos, it took me a long time to figure out whether this was an actress who was supposed to be playing a male character, or a female character in a lesbian relationship with Dr. Wolff. Is there any more point than yet another attempt at a disorienting surprise for us to learn very late in the play that a peripheral character, a teenage neighbor of Dr. Wolff’s named Sami (Matilda Tucker), is trans?
This surfeit of trickster twists and ambiguity is apparently in service to what seems to be the director’s main concern – that treating individuals (including ourselves) as members of particular groups sacrifices the humanity to which we all belong. This is expressed explicitly by a sympathetic colleague of Dr. Wollf’s, Dr. Michael Copley (Christopher Osikanlu Colquhoun), when most of the others see her continued presence in the institution she founded as a threat to its survival:
“We cut her loose and let them have her – and have her as white or a Jew or godless or a woman – we let her be anything other than a doctor, if we let them drag in biography, if our identities, if doctors’ identities are put on the table, then let’s be clear what that means, because it’s Jewish doctors for Jewish patients and fat doctors for fat patients and ‘should you perform the surgery if you haven’t undergone it yourself?’… [The l]ast time we chopped up the world into identity groups, let’s remember where that road led – with tattoos on people’s wrists,” Dr. Copley says, then adds: “and as a Jew, I get to make that point.“
Doesn’t that addendum undermine everything Dr. Copley had just said before it? Is Icke being satirical? Or is he underscoring how complex the issues are, how difficult it is to find the entire truth on one side? Or is this just more muddle?
Some of these same questions carry over to the top of Act II, even during the thought-provoking arguments that occur when Dr. Wolff appears as the guest on a show called “Take the Debate,” where she is interrogated by panelists with a wide range of viewpoints, including an anti-abortion activist, a specialist in the study of Jewish culture, an expert in unconscious bias.
“The Doctor” largely comes off as abstract, a feeling enhanced by Hildegard Bechtler’s generic looking set of a sleek wooden wall, and a table with benches on a turntable. What emotion exists feels goosed by a near-constant underscore of Hannah Ledwidge’s drum playing, perched in a little cage way above the action. But the final two scenes — one between Ruth and Father Jacob, the other between Ruth and Charlie — take us in a different direction, more grounded in the individual characters. It finally becomes clear why Icke has chosen to make Dr. Wolff head of an institution that is looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease that takes away your identity, making the debates over identity politics irrelevant.
Park Avenue Armory through August 19
Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes including one intermission
Tickets: $54 – $208
Adaptation and Direction Robert Icke
Set and Costume Design Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting Design Natasha Chivers
Sound Design and Composition Tom Gibbons
Cast: Juliet Stevenson as Ruth Wolff, Christopher Osikanlu Colquhoun as Michael Copley, Doña Croll as Brian Cyprian, Juliet Garricks as Charlie, Preeya Kalidas as Flint, Mariah Louca as Rebecca Roberts,John MacKay as Father Jacob, Daniel Rabin as Paul Murphy, Jaime Schwarz as Junior, Matilda Tucker as Sami, Naomi Wirthner as Roger Hardiman, and Hannah Ledwidge on drums.
Photos by Stephanie Berger