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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
What the Hell's Your Problem?
An Evening With "Dr. Bob" Nathelson
by Les Gutman
I've been walking by the Paradise Theater on East 4th Street for four years now wondering when Tom Noonan was going to present another play. I was intrigued when I saw his last one, Wang Dang, in February 1998. It was set in real time and space, with dialogue that could be called a cross between Mamet and Pinter, albeit different. It was also later made into a film of the same name, as were his two previous efforts, Wifey (The Wife on film) and What Happened Was.... What the Hell's Your Problem? peaked my interest: how would Noonan apply his paradigm to this new work, which was said to be about a self-help guru conducting a seminar. Audience members, the press release announced, would be welcome to participate onstage.
My problem, and it seemed to apply to other audience members, is fear, or maybe paranoia. Specifically, fear that the fourth wall is about to tumble down. As soon as we approach the box office, we know we are in for trouble. Instead of a playbill and ticket, we are handed a name tag (mine is above)and a lengthy release form. If we plan to "spill" -- that's the word Dr. Bob (Tom Noonan) has invented for getting on his stool-on-a-platform and sharing -- we have to sign the release, which informs us, among other things, that he is no doctor and that nothing that is about to happen is psychotherapy, or even warranted to cure us of anything that ails us. If we have any questions or problems before we get inside, we are directed to Ronnie (John Good) for answers. There's also a concession stand selling wine and water; the woman behind the counter has an attitude, and tells me she has nothing to do with those other people (she seems to think they may be some sort of cult) and that if I want to leave during the event, they'll probably give me my money back.
Tony and Tina's Wedding meets Dr. Laura.
My fear increases when I see I'm seated in the front row next to the only red chair in the room, and it's marked "Staff". Later, I'll begin to wonder if I'm the only person there who's not already one of Dr. Bob's disciples. I will gaze suspiciously at all the other putative audience members, wondering if I have any allies. I really am getting paranoid as I ponder if the other theater critic I see in the audience (who is seated in the back row) knows more than I do, or whether the actress I recognize from another show is on Dr. Bob's payroll. What the hell is my problem?
As the program starts, Dr. Bob is not in evidence. He is running late, very late in fact -- he shows up after some hour and three-quarters. So the inmates (in the persons of Bob's leggy blond assistant, Fawn (Eileen O'Connell), and Ronnie) are in charge of the asylum. Over the latter's grumblings, Fawn takes charge. Amid a good deal of squabbling about procedure, a series of "spillers" take the stage (the actors, Rhonda Keyser, Jay DiPietro, Grant Varjas, Hollis Welsh and Kendall Pigg). There's a bit of encouragement of audience members but, this night at least, no takers.
The performances are well-considered and acted, if a bit predictable in content. After about 90 minutes, I began to wonder if Dr. Bob would be a no-show. (Not a chance: he arrives with as many or more problems than his followers). I also was puzzled as to how Noonan would manage to bring this all to a close. Things got somewhat tedious during this two hours without an intermission. Noonan has never been afraid to convey tedium onstage, and he does have an ending, although it struck me as cheap. But Noonan's ability to bring his audience to his subject matter is impressive, and the exercise proves exceptionally theatrical -- so much so I don't see how this one could be translated to film.
I'll hide and watch. I don't think I'll have any problems at the movies.
LINKS TO ANOTHER PLAY BY TOM NOONAN
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