Hell may be other people, as Sartre once wrote, but he never had to endure the particular hell that can be found in a modern American hospital waiting room — where anxious people gather in a state of high stress. Playwright Gracie Gardner captures some of that energy in her promising 90-minute play “I’m Revolting,” which opened Wednesday at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater.
Unfortunately, hospitals are unlikely settings for strangers to do more than exchange pleasantries — and Gardner’s attempts to alter that dynamic, even to have the doctors share diagnoses in the waiting room (they’ve apparently never heard of HIPAA), never seem quite plausible.
Patrice Johnson Chevannes strikes a compassionate, somewhat didactic tone as the senior doctor on duty, treating a series of patients with varying degrees of skin cancer. Her resident (Bartley Booz), meanwhile, projects an air of puppy-dog enthusiasm even as he seems flustered by real-life patients whose reactions fall far outside his experience or his textbook knowledge of the subject.
Perhaps because of the nature of the waiting room setting, the patients never really spring to life — despite the best efforts of the cast. Peter Gerety has some sharp moments as a talkative codger who’s a regular patient and whose awkward outgoingness can be chalked up to his age. And Bartley Booz makes a sharp impression as a hard-charging Wall Street analyst who helps to embolden her shy sister (Alicia Pilgrim) to advocate for her own wishes despite the doctors’ advice to the contrary.
There are some tonal imbalances here too, as we shift from the marital bickering of one seriously ill patient and her unsupportive husband to a hippieish mother spouting on about how modern medicine lacks “holistic modalities” while playing her Tibetan singing meditation bowls. And director Knud Adams does little to resolve the unevenness, directing his cast to a flat naturalism that lulls more than it engages.
Constrained by her format and her running time, Gardner can offer little more than a skin-deep look at modern medicine and how ordinary patients respond to it. (There are flashes of insight — apparently NYC’s famed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center really does have a Yelp rating — two and a half stars, most recently.) Instead, “I’m Revolting” mostly just kills time.
Finally, a word about the title: It’s a turn-off and not really reflection of Gardner’s considerable skills or the play’s themes.