'Rx' is stylish, clever satire of drug companies

JENNIFER FARRAR Associated Press Published:

NEW YORK (AP) -- A lot of people hate their jobs, but not to worry: there could soon be a pill for that. In the greedy world of pharmaceutical marketing as darkly imagined by playwright Kate Fodor, workplace malaise might become an "eminently treatable" disease with a delightfully lucrative "long-term revenue stream" for the manufacturer of said magical pill.

In Fodor's snappy new comedy "Rx," which opened Tuesday night off-Broadway, drug company Schmidt Pharma has no incentive to actually cure anything. Instead, their goal is to find treatable conditions that will forever depend on patients needing and paying for their products.

Presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, the fast and witty 100-minute production is smoothly directed by Ethan McSweeny. Fodor sets a fairly ordinary love story amid stylish, clever satire of drug trials, medical marketing tricks, and our over-dependence on pills to solve problems. She also takes deft aim at workaholics, esoteric trade journals, corporate bureaucracies, doctors and scientists, poets and poetry, and even the concept of the "bucket list," a person's list of things to accomplish before they die.

Marin Hinkle plays Meena, a sweet, lonely, poet-turned-magazine-editor who is desperately unhappy in her job at American Cattle & Swine Magazine. Hinkle, best-known for her hard-edged role as Judith on the television series "Two and a Half Men," is appealingly yearning and fragile as Meena. Joining Schmidt Pharma's clinical trial for a new drug that's meant to cure workplace depression (cleverly code-named SP-925), Meena soon falls for her doctor, Phil, played with brisk, self-effacing charm by Tony Award nominee Stephen Kunken.

Kunken has a dry delivery, ably conveying his character's low self-esteem, the result of Phil feeling that he failed to really help people when he was an emergency room doctor. Not all that happy with his own work at Schmidt, he confides in Meena that at least "they give me a lot of money for not helping anyone."

Elizabeth Rich gives a ferociously funny performance as Phil's aggressive, all-about-the-money boss, Allison, who loves her job way too much. Rich exudes energy and enthusiasm each time her manically workaholic character bursts onstage.

Paul Niebanck brings slapstick charm to his portrayal of Ed, a disorganized, Albert Einstein-lookalike researcher who happily dismisses a colossal drug failure with, "Oh, well, if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research, would it?"

Marylouise Burke is enjoyably ditzy as Frances, a cheerful, longtime widow who encounters Meena weeping in her secret crying spot in a department store. The calming scenes with Frances and Meena bonding amid hanging racks of large-sized ladies' pastel underwear are very sweet, as each character inspires the other to make some positive changes in her life.

Lee Savage's sleek, functional, institutionally neat set contrasts with the messy relationship issues that soon emerge between Phil and Meena. Even Allison suffers some comically handled, drunken heartbreak-- work-related, of course. Fodor's fate for Frances seems jarring and unnecessary, but otherwise, the play as a whole is a good dose of intelligent fun.

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