What happens when a popular television personality finds himself in the middle of a scandal? This topical question is at the center of Quack, a world premiere play by Eliza Clark currently playing at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Dr. Irving Baer (Dan Bucatinsky) is an endocrinologist who has built an empire of sorts thanks to a highly successful, long-running daily afternoon television show. He is, of course, a bit of a character—he’s whiny, self-important, tone deaf, unreceptive to criticism, and entirely lacking self-awareness. When the story begins, he has made a poor judgment call that proves to be catastrophic for his career—in an ongoing effort to remain as non-controversial as possible, he failed to take a stance on the importance of vaccinations, suggesting during a segment that there might be some credence to the long-rumored link with autism. As a result, two children die in a measles outbreak, and when it becomes known that their mothers were loyal viewers of The Dr. Baer Show, a storm of bad press begins. One story in particular, written by a young, up-and-coming journalist named River (Shoniqua Shandai), is especially damning, and as things get worse and worse Dr. Baer becomes increasingly obsessed with River and why she would do this to him, a vendetta that ultimately helps no one. Her article, which makes her an overnight sensation as a writer, is called “If It Looks Like a Duck,” providing the inspiration for the title of the show.
Kelly (Jackie Chung) is a nurse and Dr. Baer’s assistant of eleven years, although in addition to answering his phones and providing emotional support she has recently started appearing on his show, doing her own segments. Her gratitude towards her boss, who has certainly provided her with opportunities, is often at odds with her relatable desire to feel more heard by him. Dr. Baer’s wife, Meredith (Jessalyn Gilsig) is a health industry guru of sorts herself, although her “Mere Baer” line of diet and wellness products also takes a hit of collateral damage as a result of the vaccination scandal. Rounding out the cast is Brock (Nicholas D’Agosto), the leader of an alt-right “men’s rights” movement on the internet who catches Dr. Baer’s attention after speaking up in support of him, seeing him as the latest victim in a “witch hunt” by a society that is emasculating men left and right.
Directed by Neel Keller, Quack manages to be topical without being overly so—no specific references are made to the Time’s Up movement, even though the storyline certainly evokes such comparisons. Dr. Baer’s relationships with these three women, Kelly, Meredith, and River, are at the center of the show, which is fitting—he often says how he would have nothing without women, who comprise the majority of his audience. But like many men, that does not mean he actually hears or respects them. Disappointingly, two of the three women are revealed by the end of the show to have done dishonest, difficult-to-defend things. It is frustrating and harmful to the point the show seems to be hoping to make that the way these women choose to get ahead in a male-dominated world is to stoop to that level. The message that comes across most clearly is about the corrupting power of the entertainment industry and of celebrity in general, but it is unclear if this is the playwright’s intention.
Nearly all of the action takes place inside Dr. Baer’s office, which is cleverly updated between scenes to reflect passage of time as well as his downward spiral. Over three quarters of the way through the show, the way the transitions between scenes are done changes abruptly, and it is a perplexing and jarring choice that lacks purpose. Generally, the production moves at a nice pace, managing to feel fairly dynamic despite most scenes consisting of a conversation between two people in an office. Bucatinsky and Gilsig in particular are giving impressive performances—the former creates a Dr. Baer who feels like a fully realized human being, quirks and all, and excels in the more physical comedic moments, while the latter commands every scene she is in with quiet rage and poise. But overall, it is difficult to latch onto or root for any of the characters. Ultimately, Quack is a social commentary that does not successfully comment on much in a meaningful way.
Quack runs at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre through November 18th. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.