‘The Doctor’: Nearly Three Hours Socio-Political Debate And One Titanic Performance

Run don't walk to see Juliet Stevenson in a production that marks her first trip across the pond in 20 years. As for the play, you're on your own.

Juliet Stevenson in ‘The Doctor’ at Park Avenue Armory. Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory

The Doctor | 2hrs 45mins. One intermission. | Park Avenue Armory | 643 Park Ave | (212) 616-3930

The death of Glenda Jackson drives another nail into the coffin of England’s famously distinguished family of female theater royalty, already diminished by the exits of Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Joan Greenwood and Vivien Leigh. We still have those beloved Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith (and to some extent, Vanessa Redgrave), and the remarkable, astonishing and much younger Juliet Stevenson. Her acclaimed appearances on the London stage and occasionally in films such as Truly, Madly Deeply cement her reputation as one of the most revered actresses in the UK, but her visits to the U.S. are as rare as the spotting of a red butterfly. Any time she returns to New York is a cause for rejoicing. This is the main reason to run don’t walk to see her currently starring in The Doctor, a play written and directed by Robert Icke that marks her first trip across the pond in 20 years. She is worth the wait and the trip. As for the play, you’re on your own.

The Doctor, a long-winded rewrite of the 1912 play Professor Bernhardt by Austrian physician-playwright Arthur Schnitzler, was originally an indictment of anti-semitism in the days preceding Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany. Mr. Icke’s re-boot, extended to nearly three hours to include every troubling contemporary issue known to man in a digital age of muddled socio-psychology, throws in everything but the kitchen sink. It’s not on Broadway, which is a shame, because Ms. Stevenson’s titanic performance cannot be considered eligible for next year’s Tony awards. Instead, it’s being staged at the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall, a drafty, uncomfortable mausoleum that looks and feels more like a geology auditorium than a theatre. Worse still, the 55,000-square-foot space is plagued by a maddening echo that makes every word sound like it’s being phoned in from another town on a short-wave radio. If you manage to get used to how bad the echo is, you might like the play more than I did, but the operative word is “might.”

The cast of ‘The Doctor’ at Park Avenue Armory. Stephanie Berger

Ms. Stevenson gallantly plays Dr. Ruth Wolff, the Jewish founder and chief surgeon of a London medical institute. A 14-year-old girl is admitted after a botched abortion and diagnosed with  fatal sepsis. When a Roman Catholic priest arrives at the request of the girl’s parents to deliver the last rites, Dr. Wolff refuses to admit him. The girl dies, and in the scuffle that follows, the doctor punches the priest in the arm. What follows seems at first like it’s going to be an interesting morality play about medicine vs. scientific ethics, with the opposing positions rooted in anti-Semitism. But Icke soon loses track of that theme and expands the question of a Jewish doctor arrogantly imposing her will on a Catholic priest to the fallout among the clinic’s board of directors who want to please social media and avoid bad publicity, the girl’s parents who start a petition against Dr. Wolff, and her old school friend, now a government minister with the power to cancel the badly  needed funding that will save the clinic’s financial future. The doctor refuses to apologize, which opens a can of worms that threatens to destroy the clinic and her career.

Such an excess of socio-political ideas and complex sub-themes are introduced in every scene that it’s hard to follow them all. Some of the ideas are as intriguing as they are lengthy, but there are too many of them.  The play says that like everything else in a constantly changing world, a doctor is a sum of many parts, but Dr. Wolff believes being a doctor is an inclusive entity unto itself. The parts don’t always add up. The priest is black, but played by a white actor, which adds to the confusion. Dr. Wolff is Jewish, but not remotely religious, and rejects everything about her heritage.

Still, no assault by a Jewish doctor who supports abortion on a Catholic priest who considers it a sin will be tolerated by the church. Myriad prejudices become a lynchpin for nearly three hours of pseudo debate about the tenets of ethnicity, gender, and sexual politics in a woke environment. Wandering in and out are a parade of peripheral characters, including the doctor’s lesbian lover Charlie (Juliet Garricks) and Sami (Matilda Tucker), a young transgender friend who brings out her suppressed maternal instincts. Everyone plays multiple roles, all of them contributing nothing memorable to the traffic. It’s a play that bites off more issues than it can safely swallow. 

Juliet Stevenson and Matilda Tucker in ‘The Doctor’ at Park Avenue Armory. Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory

A total of at least one hour could be easily cut from all of this, relieving the ensuing tedium, but the clinic staff must be heard from as they reduce Dr. Wolff to splinters, and in one long scene she faces more critics on a live TV talk show, while her face is projected on the back wall. Everything is accompanied by the endless hammering of a live drummer above the stage. It’s an exhausting experience, at the end of which I was ready to scream.

But at the center is the unflagging polish of the star—arrogant, so precise that even with the constant echoes you can und understand every word she speaks. Her dilemma is both medical and human, rooted in crystal clear logic and challenged by her colleagues to whom facts in today’s social media environment are open to opposing interpretations. It’s marathon of movement. At one point she runs around the stage in circles ten times, but doesn’t even pause to breathe. Playing any role, no matter how demanding, is to this consummate actress a way of life, not just some personal priority. I have no confidence in the commercial success or lasting validity of The Doctor, but my money is on Juliet Stevenson.

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‘The Doctor’: Nearly Three Hours Socio-Political Debate And One Titanic Performance