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November 11, 2013

REVIEW Men In White by Sidney Kingsley, directed by Erin Cronican, The Seeing Place Theater

Sidney Kingsley's Men In White is a vivid drama about doctors, their lives and their practice in a hospital in 1933, the year the play was first produced.  It builds on a fascinating tension between the image of doctors as heroic and pure -- “men in white” -- and the fact that they’re as prone as the rest of us to mistaken notions, ethical quandaries, and yielding to temptations.   

George Ferguson is the most promising of the young doctors at St. George’s Hospital.  He’s so bright and idealistic he’s headed for research with the great Dr. Hochberg -- a professional coup -- and he’s so able an M.D. that he’s called on constantly …. to set a broken leg ... catheterize a patient ... administer a shot (in those days when the medical arsenal was thinner, these general surgeons did everything).  He’s not only skilled, he’s ethical -- seizing the instruments from the hands of an important M.D. who’s using the wrong method, and going on to save the patient’s life. 

Will he cave in to the pressing demands for "fun" and a "full life" of his fiancée, Laura, when yet another medical emergency forces him to break a date with her -- again?  She’s bitterly disappointed and near to fed-up but, forthrightly and honestly, he conveys to her his sense of duty as well as his conflict, and suggests a date for the next night.

Thus he passes the first tests of his idealistic devotion to medicine and human betterment.  But others come along, as they’re bound to, and he -- like others of his colleagues -- sometimes fails to do the right thing, or does the wrong one. 

Through George Ferguson, his beautiful, fun-loving  fiancée, Laura, and his medical and scientific mentor Dr. Hochberg, this play examines issues that are as important today as they were in 1933.  The intense strains placed on physicians (and other professionals) in the course of arduous training and practice continue to put loving relationships to hard tests -- although today the professionalism of women is more likely to figure among the personal conflicts. 

The play was very bold for its time in staging a gruesome operation to try to save the life of a young woman victimized by an illegal abortion, dramatizing the significance of the struggle for legalized abortion, and reminding us of the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancies that still extract the highest costs from women throughout the world.

And the conflict between the intense demands of vocational and other idealism and the high purposes of a loving life is timeless.

It’s welcome that The Seeing Place Theater has given us the opportunity to see Men In White, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1934.  Watching on opening night, however, I thought the play had been under-rehearsed.  There were distracting line flubs, some of which led to factual anachronisms such as a doctor recommending “antibiotics,” not yet discovered in 1933 -- quick thinking on a missed cue but it came out wrong -- and language anachronisms like “the both of them” for “both of them," along with other improvisational patches. 

While these things can be smoothed out, there’s a mismatch, between the goals of this theater group and the style needed to produce this play effectively.

The “behavioral storytelling” approach described in the group’s statement includes the pauses, repetitions, and multi-tries of our everyday language:  this creates a slow pace inconsistent with the mood of the text, and makes you feel you’re losing touch with the playwright.  Movement, too, appears improvisational, evidently because, according to the statement, “There is very little blocked on stage … ”  leading to diminished visual interest.

Men In White is of a crisp 1930’s genre that needs fast repartee and stage movement related to the action, and doesn't lend itself to long pauses while actors seem to look into themselves (and on opening night, for all the world gave the impression they were trying to remember their lines).  

I admire the creative idealism of this group, working toward depth through its “pro-actor philosophy” and method acting-like techniques, and I look forward to seeing how their ideas may animate in new ways other plays on their ambitious program.       

Men In White plays at ATA's Sargent Theater on West 54th Street in Manhattan through November 24th.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

Comments very welcome.  Scroll down, click on "commentsm," write in comment box and click on "post."  Emails are private and never appear with comments.



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Yours is an excellent analysis of this drama which very well portrays the conflicts which arise in those of us in the medical professions. The portrayal of the long work hours, incompetent staff physicians, the categorical imperative to save life and limb versus very human desire to play. Many of us found that work becomes play. That there is always the ability to meet medical demands and also that of a life partner. As you note the paradigm change, and that now at least 50% position of women. This brings other forms of the conflict but does not change the essential need for balance. Quality is more important than quantity. I too was somewhat surprised by antibiotics 1933. Also the cleaning of hands, 1933, was done by scrubbing not by dipping in what was supposed to be in the basins carbolic acid.

Ha. The phrase "both of them" isn't even in the script either. I was looking forward to this, but after seeing all the 'falsities' in their marketing materials, I wasn't expecting much either. Another self-indulgent production posing as 'art'.

I was really looking forward to it, too, and was disappointed. Still, it gave me a chance to see through the flubs and theories to the play .... approximately. I didn't have the script but I'm not amazed that "both of them" isn't there either. Many many thanks for writing. Yvonne

Interesting about the carbolic acid goof ... too much carelessness!

The hand cleaning in the final scene is done according to the script's stage directions. The previous comment is incorrect. The script calls for the bowls of carbolic acid. It's in the stage directions. The production does what the script explicitly specifies.

Before people comment, they should really check their facts.

Many thanks for sending in this good information. My impression is that the commentator was writing from a medical background,since most people don't have the the script of "Men In White" at hand.

Gotta love they are using your review, or a line of it to promote the show! Lame. And 'carbolic acid' is NOT mentioned in the script. Even lamer, Alliwatcher. As they tend not to use their scripts, maybe they should do their fact checking. (Bichloride, yes, but what do facts matter!)

As a proud donor, stick with ReGroup if you want to see these shows done correctly. Sorry i missed their reading of it last year.

Point one -- that must have taken ingenuity. I just learned about ReGroup through "Twitter" and hope ReGroup will keep me posted on their performances (otherwise than through Twitter which I don't check regularly). I am really interested (even the name is clever).

First of all - Yvonne, as I said in our previous conversation, thank you for your insightful thoughts on our production. We're looking forward to having you back at the theater for the rest of our season!

Though I appreciate that our production can inspire such a heated discussion, I feel compelled to address some of the comments being left here, which are not an accurate representation of what we're doing in our production of MEN IN WHITE.

With regard to the final scene of Act II (the surgery scene) there is no mention of carbolic acid in the stage directions. But "Alliwatcher" is correct - we do execute the stage directions of the scene in the manner that Kingsley wrote with only two exceptions - Kingsley wrote that there was a "row of half a dozen sinks" which, for space and budget considerations, were reduced to one washbasin. We also stylized the scene so that many of the actions were mimed - there were no actual brushes nor actual liquid in the basins.

For those who are interested, here is what the playwright wrote, and what we executed:

"Wren, in a cap and mask, is dipping his hands in the bichloride pan; Pete, at the washbasin, is cleaning his nails with an orange-stick, and Michaelson is scrubbing his hands with long, easy strokes of the brush... [business of the nurses redacted...] Wren holds up his hands so that the bichloride rolls down the forearm and off the elbow; he repeats this once more in the bichloride, and twice in the alcohol pan, then walks away, holding his dripping hands high and away from him..." The stage directions go on to describe the rest of the doctors following the same procedure.

So, I can't speak to carbolic acid nor its uses, but I do know that we were fully accurate with what Kingsley wanted from this part of the surgery scene. It was not a goof or carelessness that we approached the scene in this manner.

As far as the comment about the word "antibiotics" being used in the performance: as Yvonne and I discussed a few days ago, on opening night an actor failed to cut off another actor's line and the 2nd actor felt he needed to ad-lib to cover for a potentially long silence. This was an actor's split second decision in a high stakes moment, and one that has not been repeated. We feel very strongly that the playwright's words are paramount, and ask that every actor a) memorize fully, and b) avoid adding their own commentary to the play while in performance. But there are times when actors forget their lines or something happens in the moment that is unavoidable. We're human, we make mistakes, and we rectify them. One of the joys of live theater is finding a way to make adjustments on the fly when not everything works the way we want it to. This was certainly the case on opening night of MEN IN WHITE.

Finally, like any theater company would, we took a positive snippet of a review (without editing) in an effort to share this reviewer's thoughts on our production. We included a link so that any reader can reference the full review. We're thrilled that even with her reservations, Yvonne felt compelled to mention in her review that she admired our ideals and the depth we strive to achieve.

Again, Yvonne - thank you for your candor and for your fair review. I especially appreciate this forum that allows me to share my thoughts as well. And thank you to all of the commenters who are keeping our production alive and in your thoughts.

You agree with AlliWatcher and in the next sentence say she is wrong about the carbolic acid?? No wonder it's such a convoluted production. If Drs were bumping into each other, despite the small space, i'd get the hell out of that hospital! (Stupid me should have got the hell out of the show.) and if time appropriate work had been done, an improv wouldn't have resulted in someone saying antibiotic. "Juliet's not there? But, but... I texted her earlier". I understand and appreciate hobby theatres, especially young kids, but I came as you mis-sold yourself as "professional". I should have known any real pro theatre wouldn't need to tell people ahead of time. (Kinda like the person who tells you they are very good looking. We have eyes. We can tell if you are.)
As far as a "heated discussion", we're mainly dissecting your poor production; certainly not the play or issues.That's no discussion. Don't flatter yourself, though I wish you the best. Maybe you should stick with simpler plays
Good intentions? Likely. But the road to hell is paved with....

I fwd your review to them days ago, but as the seeing place rips them off often, they won't comment on it (at least online)! (They are about to republish MiW in vol 4 of the Group plays) i told them about the show, and though they could have stopped the production, they wisely let them hang themselves!) I will email your site to them again. Sure they'd love to have u review them. They've published 10 of the unpublished Group theater plays and great "first ever, professional" revivals. Don't think they use those pretentious words as the work is good enough to speak for itself! (If nothing else, their books are vital textbooks in my classes!)

Yikes TP. It's one thing not to like a production. It's another thing to attack the group members personally. Remind me not to invite you to any of my theater company's productions because if one of my actors gets a line wrong.

Chill out, brother! NYC theater companies should support each other - there is a difference between criticism (like this fair review) and being nasty.

Other than pointing out the directors contradiction, where did I attack anyone besides correcting the criticism for "a discussion?" Like everyone here not involved in the show, I'm attacking the poor production. Theatre that build a rep on reviving old shows or even give cheap tickets bring new people to the theatre. Congrats to that! BUT if the work is crap, as it is here, people won't return. Men in White just got buried for 80 more yrs. They have extra responsibility. Again, I'd have been kinder if they had billed it as a community theater production of the show, not "the only professional revival".

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