Of Interest, And Nothing More: Donogoo

07/02/2014 4:00 AM |

The Mint Theater

The name Jules Romains may have fallen into obscurity today, particularly in America, but he was a dominant cultural figure in France in the first half of the twentieth century. A poet and novelist (notably of a 27-volume work called Men of Good Will), Romains also introduced a new philosophy, Unanimism, which posited the interconnectedness of all people—this philosophy was an influence on the paintings of Cubists like Pablo Picasso. But it was his career as a playwright that brought him his most lasting and popular success. His most famous play is still Dr. Knock, a dark comedy about a crazed crank doctor that starred the great French actor Louis Jouvet, who played in productions of it for close to twenty years and starred in two film versions of it, one in 1933 and another in 1951.

The Mint Theater produced a revival of Dr. Knock in 2010, directed and translated by Gus Kaikkonen, and now Kaikkonen has taken on another Romains play, Donogoo, a sprawling satire on crooked big business. Lamendin (James Riordan) is introduced half-heartedly considering suicide by jumping off a footbridge until he is stopped by his cynical friend Benin (Mitch Greenberg). At first, the cadences of Riordan and Greenberg seem more suited to a prairie drama than a worldly French farce, but they start to get a fast comic rhythm going. This rhythm accelerates when Lamendin meets a colorful and blustery psychoanalyst named Miguel Rufisque (George Morfogen), who sends him out on a goose chase that leads him to crooked geographer Le Trouhadec (also played by Morfogen). Between the two of them, Lamendin and Le Trouhadec put together a real estate scheme to grab money for a non-existent area in South America named Donogoo-Tonka. The suckers are called “dono-goofs.” And yes, most of the humor is on this level.

You have to hand it to the Mint Theater: they do most everything with style and skill. This is a beautifully designed and inventively staged production of Romains’s play, acted by a large cast who take on double, triple and sometimes quadruple roles just to keep the whole thing moving (a standout is Scott Thomas, who makes a vivid impression in each of his roles). Sometimes you can sense traces of what it must have been like to see this play in Paris in 1930, and you can even hear the laughs it might have gotten. It is possible, too, to imagine a sleek 1930s film version with Jouvet and Harry Baur in the leads. There are laughs here, but they’re awfully dusty old laughs, so that even while you’re enjoying parts of the production, it seems clear that the play itself is only “of interest.” If nothing else, it can certainly be said without qualification that this is the best production of Jules Romains’s Donogoo that New York is ever likely to see. Whether that makes it worth your time is something you alone can judge.