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Review: Eliza Clark's new comedy 'Quack' takes the temperature of the feverish wellness industry

Review: Eliza Clark's new comedy 'Quack' takes the temperature of the feverish wellness industry
Jackie Chung and Dan Bucatinsky in the world premiere of "Quack" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. (Craig Schwartz)

“Quack,” the lively, irritating and ultimately chilling new comedy by Eliza Clark about a TV medical guru in the mode of Dr. Oz, skips the introductory pleasantries and plunges straight into crisis.

While practicing his golf swing in the confines of his New York studio office, Dr. Irving Baer (Dan Bucatinsky) orders his assistant, Kelly (Jackie Chung), to fill him in on the details of a magazine hit job that threatens to bring down his empire. He needs the information to plan his public-relations strategy but can’t stop interrupting Kelly to defend himself against the devastating charges.

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The article, written by a journalist with the vexing name of River Thumbolt (Shoniqua Shandai), portrays Dr. Baer as an anti-vaccine advocate who’s responsible for the deaths of several children from a measles outbreak. This long investigative piece (8,500 words, spanning his entire career) impugns not only his medical judgment and integrity but also the ethics of his wife, Meredith (Jessalyn Gilsig), whose dieting business is as extreme as her abrasive personality.

“I’m an endocrinologist,” Dr. Baer keeps shouting in exasperation, meaning he’s not even supposed to have a view on vaccines, so why does anyone care if he’s been a little fuzzy on this life-or-death subject? As for his wife’s suspect dieting methods, he concedes to Kelly, “You know how hard Meredith has to work to keep her body looking like that? It’s a constant process. Very unpleasant to be around.”

The play, which is receiving its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre under the direction of Neel Keller, is composed in gusts of comic tirades. The harangues of Dr. Baer, a myopic egotist convinced he’s been unfairly targeted, don’t take much to set off. Yet he still wants everyone to believe he’s a warm and wonderful guy. As enraged as he is unctuous, he’s like a David Mamet character transposed to a network sitcom.

Meredith, who bounds into the office like a Green Beret straight from an expensive Pilates session, tries to alert her husband to the danger he’s in. Her battle plan nixes Kelly, a nurse who has moved up from being an assistant to Dr. Baer to his on-air associate. But Kelly has become too valuable to her boss. He can’t make a phone call without her, and her quiet competence is a refreshing change from his wife’s commando style. She’s not going anywhere.

The setup of “Quack” is invigorating fun, but a question soon emerges: How is Clark going to sustain our interest in a satiric comedy with a cast of characters whose company is best appreciated in small doses? A walking parody of the wellness industry, Dr. Baer would normally be a second banana, but here he occupies the protagonist role. Bucatinsky’s humorous attack has unflagging zing, but the doctor routinely overstays his welcome.

Gilsig’s Meredith takes over the stage whenever she appears with her combative entitlement, but her exits tend to come as a relief — a breather for everyone’s boiling blood pressure. Chung nicely balances Kelly’s diffidence and opportunism, but the character is vague in ways that serve the plot but don’t always make practical sense.

Clark — author of the play “Future Thinking” (produced at South Coast Repertory in 2016) and a TV writer whose credits include “The Killing” and “Animal Kingdom” — sometimes sacrifices plausibility for cheap laughs. When Meredith reprimands Kelly for serving her lemon water with an offending seed, Kelly, normally so level-headed, fishes it out by plunging her entire hand in the glass.

Journalism can similarly fall victim to playwriting expediency. The meetings between River and Dr. Baer don’t follow the normal protocols of a reporter checking back in with her subject. But more objectionable is the ease with which her role in the play is ended. Shandai’s formidable performance deserves a less disposable character.

Clark’s writing has a tantalizing sharpness, but best not to dig too deeply into nitty-gritty realities, such as the supposed “millions” of readers of River’s hatchet job. (Who knew the magazine business was doing so well?)

Dan Bucatinsky and Shoniqua Shandai in "Quack" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Dan Bucatinsky and Shoniqua Shandai in "Quack" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. (Craig Schwartz)

Midway into the play, “Quack” gets a thematic extension. A new character, Brock (Nicholas D’Agosto), enters the picture. The leader of a movement whose mission is to make men great again by defending them against the ravages of feminism, Brock takes up Dr. Baer’s cause, positioning him as another powerful man brought low by a woman who doesn’t know her place.

Turning a privileged group into a category of victims is all the rage these days — see Donald Trump’s remarks on Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation process. So this twist in the plot brings some political heat to a comedy that could otherwise seem clinically cool. (The “Dr. Oz” phenomenon is a ripe cultural target, but more suitable perhaps for a sketch comedy than a full-length play.)

Clark cleverly connects the two halves of her story through the troublesome gender dynamics of her characters. Conceptually, “Quack” makes sense, but it lacks an organic flow. Individual scenes and the shape of the comedy as a whole still seem to be searching for their ideal form. Dane Laffrey’s oddly uninviting sets mirror Clark’s counterintuitive dramaturgy.

But for all its imperfections, “Quack” has an entertaining vitality. If the characters can be trying company, their disagreeableness provides a steady stream of laughter.

The vividness of the performers dining out on Clark’s crackling wit eases some of the impatience you might experience in a play that doesn’t know when to quit. The ending takes a while, but the final tableau is worth the wait: “Quack” deftly diagnoses an aggrieved strain of male megalomania as the root of society’s biggest problems right now.

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“Quack”

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends November 18

Tickets: $25 to $72 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, with no intermission

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