Only a generation ago, the medical field was held in high esteem. From Sinclair Lewis Arrowsmith to the wacky but noble savages of M.A.S.H., doctors and researchers have enjoyed stellar reputations. But in the age of HMOs and pharmaceutical giants, it seems that this longstanding good will has all but evaporated.
A case in point is the provocatively titled new show Cancer: The Musical, written by Tom Donnellon, a Detroit-area surgeon who survived a bout with cancer. Between his personal struggle and his background in the medical establishment, he brings much to this play, which lambastes the shallow creeds of impersonal doctors, the doctor-shuffling doublespeak of HMOs and the corrupt immorality of money-grubbing drug executives. In fact, the only characters who emerge unscathed are the heroic lab rats, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of a cure, mystified by the greed and violence of humanity.
The plot is almost all fantastical melodrama. Researcher Dr. Bernard discovers a cure for cancer. A rival pharmaceutical boss learns of this and promptly sends a hit man out to slay Dr. Bernard, for the stockholders. When the drug chief learns, however, that he is stricken with cancer, he cries like an anguished Scrooge because he cant recall the hit. A romantic subplot between cancer patient Annie and Dr. Harris revolves around getting Dr. Bernards drug in time. Will the hit man be stopped? Can Dr. Harris save Annie? Will Dr. Bernard win his fame and fortune?
Most of the madcap story lines have great energy thanks to over-the-top performances from Michael McGettigan as the CEO and a spastic Dustin Gardner as Dr. Bernard but the doctor-patient love story lacks wit and is dropped with surprising abruptness. That said, these two actors do a commendable job of playing straight characters in a wacky story, leaving the laughs to others, such as Chad Kushuba, a master of the well-placed gesture, or the rubber-faced Suzan M. Guoine.
Directed by Detroit Second City vet Shawn Handlon, the usual improv tactics abound, especially the humor of incongruity, such as doctors who give biopsy results to the tune of The Candyman or debrief patients on side effects like a sleazy lounge singer. Some gags lampoon the musical style itself, with self-referential wordplay and at least one very self-conscious chord progression. And, clearly, the players are not ashamed to get laughs with pee and poop humor, which gives the show the rollicking irreverence of a good episode of South Park. Mature audiences only.
Theatergoers can expect an informality onstage, a raw, improvisational style with spare sets, simple lighting, low-budget sound effects and the scarcest suggestion of costume but with energetic accompaniment from a live rock band. This simplicity fits well with the venue. The Abreact Performance Space, a shared living space in the Boydell Building, is now into its third year showcasing edgy theater on a donations-only policy. Always a good night out, the spaces free beer, its smoking lounge and its fire escape overlooking Lafayette and Beaubien streets can make the pre-show atmosphere feel more like a loft party than a night at the theater.
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through Oct. 15, at Abreact Performance Space, 442 E. Lafayette, Detroit; 313-247-5270.Michael Jackman is the copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]