Eliza Clark’s new dramedy Quack packs a punch as it follows the career of Dr. Irving Baer (Chris Hutchison) in the aftermath of a viral article attacking his highly successful, Dr. Oz-like television show. The piece by reporter River Thumbolt (Michelle Elaine) is called “If it looks like a duck…” and suggests that the American public is super stupid and will fall for anything.
In the article, River, who has written a memoir about losing a lot of weight, uses anonymous sources to suggest Baer has encouraged viewers to not vaccinate their kids and that two children have died as a result. The truth of those accusations is complicated, but Baer's main gig, notably, is “helping” women lose weight and selling products that might very well be snake oil. It makes the doc a ton of dough.
Thus begins Clark’s dissection of “gotcha” journalism in contemporary America, where mixed and highly personal motives sometimes determine the slant of journalism, instead of a good-faith pursuit of the objective, reported “truth.” If Clark want us to fear the power of the press and social media, it’s mission accomplished, for sure.
The set establishes Baer’s fame, with bookshelves of photos, awards, magazine covers, and memorabilia that surround a striking view of New York City. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, right? Baer has, and Hutchison’s portrayal reveals a man of contradictions, addicted to his fame as much as anything in his life. He also has a wife, Meredith (Julia Krohn), who has her own business in the weight loss world, and as Baer’s world starts to crumble around him, her career is derailed as well. Meredith tells him that the damaging article “spans your entire career,” throwing Baer into even deeper anxiety and pushing him toward the likes of Brock Silver, an alt-right guy who seems to be defending Baer.
If this sounds like a lot, you are correct. Characters are not who they seem, and topics at hand include sexism (against both men and women), medical ethics, greed, fat shaming, professional backstabbing, arrogance, even gun issues. I am sure I am leaving something out, as so many issues intersect and ricochet around so that it is kind of dizzying. But maybe that is Clark’s point: These things can be related, and they do overlap, and sometimes even have a domino effect—one thing leading to another injustice in our materialistic and celebrity-obsessed society.
There is a lot of attention to personal responsibility, which is evaded by everyone in the play in some way or another. When faced with accusations, Baer deflects by saying that he cannot be held responsible, responding “I was in the Hamptons.” But part of Clark’s point is that money and class no longer protect the elite from the media; it can all come crashing down, no matter who you are. One man’s “witch hunt” is another’s “public interest” project, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to reconcile these two perceptions.
Hutchison as Baer is the focal point of the show, and he plays the part with a smugness that makes sense, and has a flair for the comedic line. At the same time, there are some preachy speeches that bring in ethical issues, and this creates sort of a see-saw effect. Just as Dr. Baer can’t please vaxxers and anti-vaxxers all at once, the writing kind of wavers between a comedy and a drama in awkward ways. But not to worry—the actors handle it with aplomb.
The Alley, as is most often the case, is spot on with the set (Linda Buchanan) and the costumes (Andrea Lauer). I loved how the props used spoke volumes—from food to boxes to a yoga mat, they were effective. The main thing is that the script could have used some edits. Characters use so much profanity, that it is counterproductive and distracting. When the F-word is used, make it count.
Directed by the acclaimed Judith Ivey, this fast-paced production keeps you on your toes, and the twists and turns and surprises come when least expected. Michelle Elaine as River is powerful, and she gives a memorable, multi-layered performance, as does Christina Liang as Baer’s assistant, Kelly, although at times I felt she was miscast. She was so subdued, it made it hard to believe that she was Baer’s nurse sidekick on daytime television. Jay Sullivan as the manipulative Brock represents a point of view that may be contrary to Baer’s instincts, but draws him in nonetheless as his television career sinks after River’s article does its damage.
You get the feeling that payback and a culture of discrediting people and personally destroying them is the name of the game in journalism, and it’s a cynical but thought-provoking notion. But I confess that my favorite performance was Julia Krohn’s portrayal of the hard-edged Meredith. Krohn was amazing in Freaky Friday, and she has a presence that is electrifying. I was scared of her, and I wasn’t even on the stage.
That said, we may indeed live in a society of narcissists, and under the guise of “health” and “medicine,” we can be duped into allowing our insecurities and vanity become someone else’s lucrative business. Clark’s play wakes us up and reminds us that not only do we need to reclaim power over our bodies, but also our minds that are relentlessly pursued by figures such as the Fourth Estate.
Thru March 10. Tickets from $45. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.