It’s hard to write a play whose hero is the American Medical Association (AMA), even as embodied by crusading Dr. Morris Fishbein (the appealing Andrew Bosworth) and his equally earnest sidekick (Shawn Smith, without enough to do). The AMA’s erstwhile role as the scourge of quack medicine has been eclipsed by its more recent history of opposing every effort to expand access to health care.
So playwright Dolores Díaz has that obstacle to overcome. In her favor is our hunger to see a con man get his comeuppance, and especially to see him fail politically. Enter John Romulus (J.R.) Brinkley (the appropriately smarmy Michael Peters), an historical figure who got rich and famous claiming to cure impotence by implanting goat testicles. Who wouldn’t hate this guy who masters new communications techniques to spread lies? Who wouldn’t cheer his election loss, even when secured by fraud?
Man of the PeopleThrough 11/20: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Mon 11/7 (industry night) 8 PM and Mon 11/14 (understudy performance) 8 PM; Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago, 773-883-8830, stagelefttheatre.com
A script tightly focused on the battle between Fishbein and Brinkley, between honesty and deceit, between good and evil—which the good guys win by cheating—could be a fine political thriller with satisfying moral heft. But that’s not the play Díaz has written or Anna C. Bahow has directed. Theirs is a story of parallel unhappy relationships (Brinkley’s with his wife, Fishbein’s with his mother) set against the backdrop of a battle between men who are only in the same room once. And while I’m as interested as Tolstoy in unhappy families, these two don’t have enough momentum or connection to sustain the piece’s two and a half hours length. There’s a play in there somewhere—probably more than one—but it will take a few more iterations to get to it. Fine performances and an evocative set aren’t enough to carry it in its current form.