A Revived Problem Play

Dobama's Waiting Room proves that tender loving care can save an ailing play.

The Waiting Room is very much a first play, as divided and schizoid as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Playwright Lisa Loomer came up with a solid gold concept and then weighed it down with a leaden subplot. It's a work precariously balanced on a theatrical scale.

The play opens in a present-day doctor's waiting room. From the seventeenth century is a Chinese wife whose penchant for foot binding has caused various toes to fall off her delicate little feet. A hysterical Victorian housewife is slowly having her internal organs crushed by her beautifying corset. A present-day secretary, in her determination to catch a husband by forty, has had numerous breast implants and become riddled with cancerous tumors. All, of course, are victims of the male need to keep women passive and helpless. The three women bounce comic non sequiturs off each other with the ferocity of ping-pong champions. It's all very new-wave feminist anger and outrageous surrealism, in the manner of Top Girls playwright Caryl Churchill. So far the scale balances in its favor.

Alas, next comes the subplot. The bright lightbulb has gone out. To further their nefarious greed, men--being autocrats, boobs, and capitalists--concoct a plan to suppress a surefire cancer cure. Suddenly the drama stops, and angry journalism takes over. Even worse, the unsavory, heavy-handed rhetoric, similar to Larry Kramer's AIDS plays, becomes potent enough to cause any evening to spiral instantly into rigor mortis. Perhaps it would be better to remain at home and watch a video of The Women, which got it right almost sixty years ago.

Still, director Scott Plate personally applies metaphorical mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, imbuing this problem play with a semblance of whimsy and delicacy.

Then come the actresses, all new faces, sweet and refreshing in their performances. Victoria Karnafel, as the desperate secretary, turns pathos into spun gold; she's as lavish as an ice cream sundae and is blessed with Bette Midler's knack for platinum vulgarity. As the Victorian basket case, Sandra Manos is a ravishing, twitching golden girl; dangerous and sensual, she is suitable for all forms of Hitchcock and Tennessee Williams skulduggery. Noriko Fujiii's Asian wife injects eye-raising irony into her Madame Butterfly prototype. Slowly the scale tips in favor of a plausible night of live theater.

Adding further ballast toward a favorable production is Michael Anderson's "aw, shucks" appeal, as he once again dredges up one of his trademark malt-shop Romeos. Local acting director Joel Hammer, in a ruby-red wig, as a love-starved waitress who suggests a drag queen from Oz: It's a sight merry enough to cure the common cold. Then there's Chuck Ritchie's mad doctor, who seems to have stepped off a Looney Tunes animation cell.

In the final analysis, the scales of theatrical justice seem to have balanced in Dobama's favor. A fine production has triumphed over an interesting though problematic script.


The Waiting Room, through March 28 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-6838.