`OK, raises issue of respecting cultures

THEATER

Gately's play makes good points, but is narrow in scope

Theater Review

August 08, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Gene Gately's OK, OK is part historical drama, part personal reminiscence and part M*A*S*H.

Like that TV sitcom, this latest entry in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival tends to be too pat. It also offers a very selective view of history.

On the plus side, director Kwame Jamal Kenyatta-Bey's production at Fell's Point Corner Theatre features some congenial performances, and the play raises some interesting issues about the dangers of imposing American attitudes on foreign cultures.

First, the historical part. OK, OK takes place in 1960 Laos at one of the bush hospitals established by the late Dr. Thomas A. Dooley. As one character explains several times, Dooley's philosophy was to use no medical equipment that the local hospital workers couldn't operate on their own, such as X-ray machines. As is also explained, this philosophy got Dooley in trouble with the American Medical Association.

Second, the personal part. A former CIA official who worked for Newsweek in Asia and co-founded The Asia Magazine in Hong Kong earlier in his career, Gately based OK, OK on some of his own experiences in Southeast Asia.

The play's protagonist is a New York investigative reporter named Harrison, who is said to specialize in exposes. In the real world, a great deal of expose-type material has surfaced about Dooley and his work in Southeast Asia - everything from his closeted homosexuality to his links to the CIA.

Interestingly, none of that figures into the play - nor does Dooley himself. Harrison is on what appears to be a closed-minded, tunnel-vision mission to discredit the way Dooley practices medicine. He travels to Laos to interview Dooley, only to discover that the doctor has been diagnosed with cancer and has returned to the United States for treatment (he died a year later at age 34).

This brings us to the third, sitcom part of the play. In Dooley's absence, the hospital is being run by two former corpsmen (played with laid-back composure by Donald Russell Owens and G. Scott Spence). But soon even they are out of the picture, dashing off to help stem a rural cholera epidemic. This leaves a Laotian nurse named Noi (sweetly and sensitively portrayed by Samantha Yon) in charge of both the hospital and Harrison.

The Laotian patients, however, are unwilling to accept care from anyone other than an American doctor, and before long Noi has Harrison impersonating a physician, a situation the returning corpsmen decide they can use to the hospital's advantage. Get Harrison involved in performing acts of mercy, and they figure his reporting won't be so hostile.

Rich Thurfield (better known to listeners of WQSR-FM's Rouse & Co. as "Maynard G.") portrays Harrison with a strong dose of Jimmy Stewart-style bumbling incredulity. Harrison objects to donning a white coat and stethoscope, but he does so nonetheless.

Harrison's unexpected - and ethically questionable - duties could be enough of a plot twist, but the playwright goes a step further. He turns "Doctor" Harrison into "Patient" Harrison and lets him experience the efficacy of this backward hospital firsthand. The outcome of this all-too-tidy experience isn't difficult to guess.

The play makes a good case for respect for foreign culture, but here again, we get only a limited view of Dooley's beliefs; he was also an anti-Communist and a devout Catholic, whose writings may have exaggerated the influence of Catholicism on Southeast Asians.

The play's title, OK, OK, is a phrase we're told Dooley taught the Laotians to use in greeting Americans. According to the dictionary, "OK" can mean everything from "correct" to merely "adequate." Gately's play may strive for the former, but it comes closer to the latter.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann Street, are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 18. Tickets are $11 and $12. Call 410-276-7837.

Soprano's master class

Tony Award-winning soprano Barbara Cook will be back at Washington's Kennedy Center next week for a return engagement of her tribute concert, Mostly Sondheim, and fans of this extraordinary singer can get a closer look at her distinctive technique at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday when she conducts a master class in the center's Terrace Theater.

Although the six class participants - all Washington-area singers - have already been chosen, tickets are still available at a cost of $5. (Show times for Mostly Sondheim, also in Terrace, are 7:30 p.m. Aug. 14-16; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17; and 5 p.m. Aug. 18. Tickets are $45 and $50.) Call 800-444-1324.

`Rappaport' reviews

The revival of Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport that played a month-long run at Ford's Theatre in Washington this past winter opened on Broadway a fortnight ago (a plethora of local theater activity kept this item out of last week's column). New York reviews were mixed. Here's a sampling.

Michael Kuchwara, Associated Press: "Judd Hirsch disproves the theory that you can't go home again. True, the house may seem a bit dated and a little more ramshackled, but it is comfortable enough when Hirsch and his equally talented co-star, Ben Vereen, start trading barbs or railing against discrimination of the elderly in Herb Gardner's comedy of senior citizen friendship."

Ben Brantley, New York Times: "Whether or not you caught Rappaport in its first incarnation on Broadway ... you may still have the feeling that you've seen it before, and you're likely to anticipate its gentle reversals of plot."

Gordon Cox, Newsday: "Ultimately, ingratiating - spilling over into cutesy - is the dominant mode of I'm Not Rappaport ... They're certainly cards, these two rascally old guys, but their show proves too manipulative for anyone not instantly drawn in by the senior citizen drag."

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