So this woman walks into a plastic surgeon's office, right? What can I do for you, he says. Need your breasts done? Nose? Eyes? No, she says, I want you to put a horn in the middle of my forehead ("nothing fancy, just a plain horn"). What, like some unicorn? I want to be pretty, she says.
If the foregoing sounds like the set-up for a bad cocktail party joke, the kind told by a drunk reveler who invariably gets lost halfway into it, so you excuse yourself to the bar for another drink, only to return and discover that he still hasn't gotten to the punchline ... well, Peter Sonenstein's Patient 23 provokes a similar weariness, especially as it employs the exact premise sketched above. This self-styled "tragicomedy" is laden with charms - namely a smart cast and superlative design team - but the punchline, or payoff, is something less than might be expected.
At her insistent pleading, Dr. Kroft (Patrick Hillan) does indeed surgically implant a horn onto the cranium of one Wendy Mitchell (Barbara Hentschel). (Actually, he attaches the nub of a horn from a Chilean mountain goat, which will apparently, within the year, grow to an eight-inch appendage.) Why Wendy thinks such an accoutrement will make her beautiful is a question the playwright refuses to answer. While this decision places his play firmly within the Off-Off-Broadway aesthetic and its cult of unmotivated action, Patient 23 thus seems unnecessarily long and drawn out, despite taking less than an hour of an audience's time.
But Patricia Minskoff's direction, unfailingly right, jumped many of the play's hurdles, landing at one point on an operating-room scene as believable and intense as anything on ER (except for that horn part). Here, she is wonderfully assisted by Anthony Bishop's sleek set design, John Tees's lighting and Ray Schilke's sound.
"A horn of my own!" chants Wendy ecstatically, after the operation's apparent success. Predictably, this silicone Bloomsburyan becomes a media darling of sorts, her celebrity status vouchsafed (as is usually the case) by surgical intervention. At this point, the script might have taken a rather broad road toward satire. Somewhat suspiciously, it veers instead toward poetic allegory. For example, Dr. Kroft, evidently pleased with his work, intones "we will climb the mountaintop and show God himself a beauty he never imagined existed." (Well, that explains the choice of a Chilean mountain goat nub.) Alas, God is spared this intrusion. Bedridden and near-death -- her body has begun to reject the horn -- Wendy asks permission to spend her final hours in a forest clearing. "I'd rather die a unicorn's death," she murmurs, "than live Wendy Mitchell's life." What is the playwright using here? Metaphor? Symbolism? Some of Dr. Kroft's nitrous?
As the surgeon whose M.O. is "cleaning up God's messes", Hillan initially behaved like a vaudevillian in a doctor sketch (think Sunshine Boys) but eventually settled into quite a good performance. The same can be said for Hentschel's Wendy, who managed well the transition from sitcom dizziness to corniform sorrow. And despite flaws, there are indeed moments when Patient 23 seems to be, as one character puts it, "on the cusp between the ridiculous and the sublime." Speaking of horoscopes, Sonenstein's own portends greater and more intriguing work.
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Copyright 1998 Scott Vogel