Boca Stage is billing its current production of Kate Fodor’s play “Rx” as a “blistering satire that takes on Big Pharma.” Alas, I left the theater with no fresh blisters. The pharmaceutical giants’ predatory, profiteering tactics recede into the background of Fodor’s comedy almost as quickly as they surface.
Big Pharma is eccentric, but not particularly threatening. “Rx” shows that if you swallow the wrong pill, you can end up comatose in a hospital, but even this moment is essentially played for guffaws—a knee slapper at the expense of an absent-minded physician straight out of central casting. If this is taking on Big Pharma, the result is, at best, a draw.
Instead, in the hands of director Genie Croft and an uneven cast of seven, the work comes off like a bookish, turn-of-the-century Meg Ryan rom-com. (Though first performed in 2012, even the play’s signature cultural reference, Dolly Parton, feels airdropped from that era). Fodor has written for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and “Rx,” too, is endowed with the light, breezy timing of screen comedy writing, for better or worse. Some scenes are too brief, ending just when the actors are settling into a groove; others are unnecessary on the whole, to say the same for the show’s 10-minute intermission. A judicious dramaturg could trim the fat to 80 minutes, no intermission, and produce a better play.
And yet, we have Elizabeth Price and Timothy Mark Davis, two first-rate actors in top form, and it is a pleasure to watch them elevate the text. Price plays Meena, a published poet in another life but now a cripplingly unfulfilled managing editor at a factory-farming trade magazine. She’s a deeply unsatisfied professional who feels guilty for being so deeply unsatisfied in a comfortable and well-paying career: “There’s nothing really wrong with [the job], but I hate it,” she says, to the point where she leaves her office to cry, twice daily, in a little-trafficked corner of a nearby department store.
Enter Davis’ Phil, a doctor on the payroll of a pharmaceutical giant that is launching a clinical trial for a new drug, SP925, which targets workplace depression by boosting norepinephrine. He’d make an ideal trial subject himself. He, too, is unhappy in his 9-to-5—he yearns for his former vocation as an ER doctor, when his work seemed to make more of a difference—but for now, he’s merely a dispenser of Meena’s magic pills, seeing her for biweekly updates and refills and gradually, if inevitably, falling in love with her.
Both actors are a delight, bringing nuance and authenticity to the roles. Price is convincingly desperate and vulnerable, beseeching her white-coated supplier for every fix, even if her progress is negligible; any addict will recognize her behavioral tics. Davis first presents as genially sinister when delivering the play’s only genuinely effective barbs against Big Pharma: “It’s a disease—we hope,” he says, with that perfect and telling beat lingering in the hyphen, and adds without shame that the pill is only being pushed to candidates with incomes of more than $65,000 a year. The depressed working poor will have to find their own solutions. But we see him emerge from his position as a willing cog in a pharmaceutical bureaucracy to a somewhat tragic figure of untapped ambition.
The supporting cast includes Laura Turnbull, in a fairly thankless part as a widowed shopper in the underwear nook at Meena’s favorite crying spot, who discovers a new lease on life at the wrong time; Jim Gibbons as a kooky doctor, cleverly dressed and coiffed like his character’s idol, Albert Einstein; Steve Carroll as Kate’s boss at the magazine, in a solid performance enlivened by a particularly effective bit of ribald slapstick; and Janice Hamilton, broadly inhabiting the Pharma giant’s workaholic CEO, who almost always looks like she’s acting, and at this past Friday’s performance well exceeded this critic’s quota of flubbed lines.
The play has its own tonal issues, favoring a certain brand of laugh-track zaniness only to shift gears for moments of flailing pathos, like a death scene that feels inserted from another play. If Laura Turnbull can’t make it persuasive, perhaps the issue is with the work itself. On the production side of things, it doesn’t help that Fodor loaded the script with so many scene changes, which, while capably handled and dressed by Boca Stage’s tech crew, drags the pacing.
Which further reinforces the feeling that we’re watching a square peg trying to fit a round hole: “Rx” is a movie masquerading as a play.
“Rx” runs through Sunday, Feb. 6 at Boca Stage, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Proof of vaccination is required to attend. Tickets cost $45 for evenings and $50 for matinees. Call 561/447-8829 or visit bocastage.net.