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PATIENTS WITHOUT THERAPISTS

In One Ear

and the Unrealistic Theatre Company

at Caffe Di Falco

Someone has said that psychiatry is the only business where the customer is always wrong. There are some very wrong customers indeed in Milton Coykendall's Patients Without Therapists, a 50-minute "group meeting in one act." (It's a shorter version of the playwright's Therapeutic Encounters, performed last year at New York's Gene Frankel Theater.)

Like Miss Margarida's Way, this is an environmental show: when you enter the house (the charming Caffe Di Falco in Bucktown), you enter the play. As if arriving at a group therapy session, the audience is asked to fill out ID cards; later, cards are plucked from a hat to determine who will address the group. (Don't worry--only the five actors planted in the house ever get picked.)

Full of a plastic bonhomie and uptight anger, a receptionist (Becky Kessel) is in charge of timing the confessions and ensuring that patients abide by the rules--only five minutes each, no talking by the others, no smutty stories, etc. After each testimony, the control-freak receptionist holds out a placard saying "We understand," which the audience repeats in unison--even if we don't mean it.

The first patient, a fetishistic businesswoman (Arlene Jackson), busily fondles her chair. Suspicious and defensive, she blurts out the sorry tale of a fixation she has for her boss's leather chair, a literal seat of power that she covets. It's not enough for her to have made a lifesize glossy of it--she wants the real thing, and imagines it glowing with light as his other furniture sings and genuflects to her. After this fantasy, her conclusion--"I've got to break from my boss"--sounds a tad anticlimactic.

Next up (after he gets chewed out by the receptionist for interrupting and she makes him wear an "I am a rule breaker" sign) is a hulking mechanic (Ker Michaels). He's flying at half-mast. To overcome his impotence he's been seeing a surrogate therapist, whom he initially treats like dirt. Whenever she threatens his machismo, he compulsively gets out his tool box and looks for something to fix. (As his libido is aroused during his confession, the neurasthenic receptionist gets all cold and bothered.)

The third cri de coeur comes from an insecure dancer (Rachel Silverman). She's highly self-conscious about her body-she loves to exhibit it. At first she used to hide in the bathroom, but gradually she discovered a special pleasure in being stared at. Now about as shy as a Hollywood pimp, she gives us an annotated inventory of her better features,

This proves too much for the receptionist, who screams that she has problems, too. A defrocked analyst, she says she lost the knack after she met a leather-clad gay patient who wore a dog collar around his neck. He thought he was really a dog; it seems his family only showed him love when they took him out for a walk, something his boyfriend, alas, no longer does. (Maybe those fire hydrants were just too tempting.) This canine clone is supposed to have unhinged her. Anyway, by this point in the play she's furiously slapping herself in a masochistic frenzy.

Finally, a man we had seen lurking outside the front windows bursts in. He turns out to be an accredited psychoanalyst (Jim Haun) sent by the Illinois Psychiatric Association to break up this "illegal" meeting--too many patients without a doctor.

Predictably, the analyst is also bonkers, suffering from the delusion that he's a pirate. To prove it, he puts on a patch and flaunts a pistol.

By now the meeting is up for grabs as each patient pursues his or her favorite phantom--the businesswoman fondling her chair, the receptionist tearing her hair, the pirate-shrink looking for plunder, the dancer on the verge of a striptease, and the mechanic busily fixing a perfectly good table. A lot of cuckoos flying over the same nest.

It's my guess that Coykendall, who also directs this In One Ear/Unrealistic Theatre Company production, is aiming for a crazy-quilt combo of Marat/Sade and The Bob Newhart Show, perhaps with some Monty Python silliness thrown in for good measure.

But, as written and staged, Patients never gets beyond a shallow voyeurism to say anything penetrating or humorous. Though there's an awkward, 60s kind of populist style to the sporadic ensemble playing, these five performers are slow and fatally tentative, their interplay wooden; and the patients' hang-ups are too transparent to trigger the right claustrophobic craziness. I can understand our not getting to the heart of these case histories, but that means that both playwright and actor must make the surface all the more intriguing.

Besides, as Christopher Durang showed in Beyond Therapy, if you mean to get mean about mental illness, do it by spoofing the society that induced it. In Patients there's no such satire, no social context.

Though Michaels mumbles maddeningly, his mechanic does offer a loser pathos that's endearing. The other four nut cases never build their monologues toward the kind of dead-end desperation that could lift them from the obvious. For Coykendall's purpose, they badly need to make the quirks palpable, make them erupt from the inside out. Lacking the abandon and the zingers that characterize Second City, Patients Without Therapists should be in quest of its own therapy.

In my review of Iphigenia in Aulis last week, I said that Corneille had dramatized the myth. My mistake. It was Goethe I had in mind and should have put in print.

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