Review: In ‘The Doctor,’ a Rare Case of Physician, Harm Thyself

After attempting an abortion at home, a 14-year-old girl lies dying of sepsis at the Elizabeth Institute. No one questions her treatment there; by the time she was admitted, it was too late to save her. But when Ruth Wolff, the Institute’s head doctor, refuses to let a priest perform last rites because it would cause “an unpeaceful death,” ignorance amplified by social media turns a medical decision into a maelstrom. Soon the web is saying Wolff assaulted the priest and killed the girl.

Yet it is not simply a question of tweets and misinformation. Wolff is a Jew.

So far, the plot of “The Doctor,” Robert Icke’s adaptation of the 1922 play “Professor Bernhardi” by Arthur Schnitzler, aligns closely with the original, except that Bernhardi is a Viennese man in 1900 and Wolff a British woman today. Yet ultimately the two works could not be more different. The production that opened on Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory, directed by Icke and starring Juliet Stevenson, is less the exercise in Shavian moral argument that Schnitzler rather airily called a comedy than a tragic thought experiment about the failure of identity politics.

The thought experiment runs like this: If everyone represents only the group they belong to, instead of an overarching humanity, and if those groups get sliced finer and finer, what hope can there be for a common language, let alone a common achievement? Wolff’s medical ethics are gibberish to a person of faith, as a politician’s equivocation is nonsense to her. When an online petition states that “Christian patients need Christian doctors” it comes close to suggesting a system in which no one can be a doctor at all — and indeed, soon enough, Wolff is forced to resign.

That conundrum, honed to a sharp edge in the plotty first act, gets a satirical round table treatment in the second, when Icke puts Wolff before a panel of extreme antagonists on a portentous television program called “Take the Debate.” Faced with an anti-abortion lawyer, a “CreationVoice” activist, a post-colonial academic and a researcher of unconscious bias, Wolff, despite her excellence, gets eaten alive.

But I have left out a fifth panelist: “a specialist in the study of Jewish culture.” He seems to feel that Wolff, a “cultural” Jew, is somehow not Jewish enough.

I felt that way about “The Doctor.” Not because of Icke’s and Stevenson’s faith, whatever it may or may not be; as I don’t believe in matching Christian patients to Christian doctors (nor in a similar matching of critics to plays), I likewise don’t want to limit portrayals of a culture or religion only to its adherents. But it soon became clear to me that, unlike “Professor Bernhardi,” written by a Jew, “The Doctor” is not very serious about antisemitism. How could it be, when the sentimental attachment to identity of any sort is precisely its boogeyman?

Icke develops the idea very cleverly. His casting across race and gender ensures that you will be forced to re-evaluate your reactions when you discover, quite belatedly in some cases, that the characters are not as they may look. Is the interaction between a Jewish doctor and a priest with a Scottish accent different when you assume the priest to be white (because the actor is) than when you later learn he is Black? Does it matter whether Wolff’s partner, named Charlie and dressed indeterminately, is a man or woman?

Attacking identity from every direction, Icke moves bravely into the danger zone of heightened sensitivity and calls for cancellation. Perhaps he goes too far in stacking the deck: Though some of Wolff’s antagonists, especially the girl’s yahoo of a father, make clearly antisemitic remarks, Wolff herself is almost worse. Not merely complacently sure of herself, like Bernhardi, she is, in Stevenson’s unflinching performance, a completely unsympathetic blowhard. However well done, the success of that interpretation backfires: As she howls, insults and snaps her fingers at underlings so relentlessly you begin to wonder whether her enemies are right, even if for the wrong reason.

That’s in line with Icke’s generally over-caffeinated production, which includes a needlessly rotating turntable set (by Hildegard Bechtler), a scrape-your-nerves sound design (by Tom Gibbons) and a drum kit accompaniment from an aerie above the action (performed by Hannah Ledwidge) as if the breakneck story needed additional propulsion.

It probably needs less. Its themes, constantly broadening, also thin out. Wolff’s transgender friend, Sami (Matilda Tucker), seems to exist only to be betrayed; the drama of Charlie (Juliet Garricks) occurs mostly offstage.

And in the end, antisemitism gets dropped completely. A long final scene, lovely in itself, allows the priest who was at the center of the problem in the first place (John Mackay) to confess and be absolved. Not Wolff. She is asked to re-evaluate her hubris, examine her hidden bias and accept her fallen state with humility. The Jew-baiting of everyone else is, if not excused, forgotten, which is much the same thing.

This has been a season of Jews blamed or blaming themselves for the emotional, physical and indeed genocidal violence against them. Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” seems to argue that the assimilated Jewry of Vienna (among whom Schnitzler was a star) should have seen the Holocaust coming and bought a ticket out. In the musical “Parade,” it is not enough that Leo Frank is lynched; to make him fully human he must be transfigured by love. (He’s dead either way.) And now “The Doctor” subjects its main character to antisemitic dog whistles but, in the end, sees her downfall as her own fault and an opportunity for growth.

Well, that’s drama, and all three shows are riveting. No question they are also timely; Icke may even be warning us with that alarming drum kit that time is short. That might explain why his version of the Elizabeth Institute is not a general teaching hospital, as in the original, but a facility dedicated to the study of Alzheimer’s disease. Though it doesn’t make much medical sense for a girl with sepsis to be treated there, it does make sense for the play. Wolff describes Alzheimer’s as “a fire burning hot on the top” — scorching a path down through the brain from the newest to the earliest memories.

You need only glance at the news to know what Icke means. As the memory of the unity and selflessness that once saved the world is all but burned through, how will we remember to never forget?

The Doctor
Through Aug. 19 at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

Jesse Green is the chief theater critic for The Times. His latest book is “Shy,” with and about the composer Mary Rodgers. He is also the author of a novel, “O Beautiful,” and a memoir, “The Velveteen Father.” @JesseKGreen

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