Is There a Script Doctor in the House?

Given the choice of watching a really terrible play in a freezing-cold theater or having all my molars yanked without the aid of Novocaine, I would--after recently enduring the former--have to opt for the latter.

The play, Lisa Loomer's tedious The Waiting Room, left me weary with boredom. And the production, by the usually dependable In Mixed Company, convinced me that I'll never see a show more sloppily mounted than this.

At three hours, the play runs twice as long as it's meant to. That's partly because of Jean Thomsen-Youel's slothful direction, which makes Loomer's dirgelike dialogue even harder to bear. I exited the theater feeling queasy and covered in questions, some of them inconsequential. (Why is Robyn Allen blond? Do the actors realize we can hear them talking backstage during the play? Why is the audience applauding after every scene? Haven't they been to the theater before?) Others were more pressing. (Is this a comedy? If Timothy Lopez Rogers is playing an oncologist, why can't he pronounce the word "mastectomy"? Will the heroine hurry up and die already, so I can go home?) Unequipped with answers, I was left to speculate about this dreadful mess.

Loomer's script means to investigate America's obsession with "looksism," but succeeds only in boring us with bland, bookish blathering about the evils of vanity. Her story focuses on the delusions of beauty by a trio of women, and drags us along on visits to their unscrupulous doctors.

Wanda (Michelle Gardner) is a brash chippy whose numerous boob jobs may have contributed to her breast cancer; Forgiveness From Heaven (Angelica Frost) is a Japanese woman whose feet have been bound for so long that they're beginning to rot off; Victoria (Robyn Allen) is an unbalanced belle whose remedy for sexual repression is an "ovarioctomy."

These three trade quips about their various maladies in the waiting room of a doctor's office, and eventually end up in the same hospital room, where they bore us with ho-hum chatter about how women are martyred by beauty. We leave them occasionally to eavesdrop on overwritten, uninformative conversations between their doctors, who discuss a secret cure for cancer and make diminishing remarks about women in general.

These long, lazy scenes are followed by even more sluggish set changes. To slow things down further, an actor occasionally clambers over to a video monitor, where prerecorded clips pertaining to the next scene are shown.

This sort of cheap-jack directorial shortcut is Thomsen-Youel's strong suit. Rather than providing interesting exposition or an attractive segue, she merely turns on a television. Her knack for pulling execrable performances from her players is at least consistent; she's even convinced some of our better thespians to perform as if they're first-year acting students. I never thought I'd see a performance by Michelle Gardner that I didn't enjoy, but here she seems distracted by the words she's made to say and in desperate need of some room to act. Instead, she's trussed up by Thomsen-Youel's static direction, which finds her, in nearly every scene, plunked down in a chair or on a bed, huffing out Loomer's flatulent dialogue. Why did Thomsen-Youel hire Gardner, a performer of wide range with a talent for broad comedy, and then tie her to the furniture?

Robyn Allen, another talented actor, is likewise unable to overcome Thomsen-Youel's unfathomable direction. Forced to speak in an unidentifiable accent (is she from Savannah? Dallas? Uganda?), Allen's dithery characterization collapses halfway through the first act. Only D. Scott Withers, as Allen's anal-retentive, sex-fearing husband, escapes unscathed; his few scenes provide a confident counterpoint to the mess around him. Probably Withers ignored his director's advice.

After a decade away from local stages, Vique Rojas has come out of acting retirement to appear in The Waiting Room, and her performance is a reminder of how lucky we've been to miss her. She doesn't act so much as overact, pulling faces, mugging and wiggling her fanny to punctuate every laugh line. (One can imagine Thomsen-Youel telling her, "Yeah, make that face again as you exit the scene.") Because Rojas plays several characters (each of them distinguishable from the last only by their different costumes), we're made to endure her shenanigans again and again.

Perhaps in an attempt to keep us awake through this slumberous catastrophe, the management has cranked up the refrigeration in its tiny rented playhouse. The added discomfort of being blasted by cold air only makes watching The Waiting Room a more miserable experience.

There's little question that the folks at In Mixed Company know they've produced a stink bomb. A post-opening e-mail from one of the producers promised me that the show has been trimmed by half an hour and is "much better than when you saw it." And the program for The Waiting Room includes an announcement of the troupe's upcoming season with the promise, "We're getting back to our roots!"

Here's to hoping the company keeps that promise, and that its trip back steers clear of the kind of claptrap it's currently attempting to pass off as entertainment.

The Waiting Room continues through Saturday, May 22, at Playwright's Theatre, 1121 North First Street.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela