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‘The Patient Gloria’ Off Broadway Review: Gina Moxley Looks Back at Shrink-Wrapped Abuse

The Irish actress-playwright examines an historic case of abusive psychotherapy and early reality TV

St. Ann’s Warehouse has brought over a true oddity from Ireland. Gina Moxley’s “The Patient Gloria” opened there Sunday, and it looks back on what could be considered an early example of reality TV. Gloria Szymanski, a 30-year-old mother and wife separated from her husband, underwent three unusual psychotherapy sessions with three different therapists. Those sessions were filmed and made public without her consent in 1965. According to Moxley, they are still being used today to teach psychotherapy to students.

Seeing “The Patient Gloria” makes you want to see the tapes. We get glimmers of the real thing, projected on the back wall of the stage, and it is likely that Moxley has used some of the actual words spoken in those sessions in her play. She does give the real names of the three doctors, all of whom were noted therapists representing different schools of thought. Since those names wouldn’t mean much to most American audiences, this review will identify them by the prop penises used in “The Patient Gloria” to represent them.

Moxley, in addition to being the narrator, plays the three male doctors, and when we first see her on stage, in drag, she is sewing something. It turns out to be a penis-shaped sock filled with wool cotton and birdseed. Limp Dick is that therapist who doesn’t say much, never gives advice even when Gloria (Liv O’Donoghue) begs for it, and only asks questions. We are told that Gloria spoke 70% of the time in this very boring session.

Next up is Stretch Cock. Basically, he is a very rubbery dildo that Moxley kneads relentlessly and then stuffs in her trousers (costumes by Sarah Bacon) because that’s where men keep them. Stretch Cock is a gestalt therapist and encourages Gloria to step out of her safety zone. At one point, he also uses her as a human ashtray.

Third and last is Dildo on a Drone. As Moxley explains it, this flying object is where most of the production’s budget went. Dildo on a Drone is the kind of therapist who sleeps with his patients because he was afraid of women in his own childhood.

John McIldiff directs this theatrical farrago with the expected manic intensity. “The Patient Gloria” should be required viewing for the cast of the current Broadway revival of “1776,” since Moxley is better at male drag than any actor in that huge cast. It is easy for men to get laughs when they put on a dress. Bigger is always funny. When a woman puts on men’s clothes, she often ends up being just a little man, which is rarely funny.

Moxley knows how to give male drag the appropriate size to get laughs from the audience. It’s difficult to explain, but she does it by exaggerating the way men breathe – the way they snort, gasp, inhale and exhale to claim their space, which, of course, is the entire room — or, in this case, the entire stage. Believe it or not, you will think you can actually smell Moxley’s breath while watching her perform.

Mixed in with all the testosterone-driven mayhem is a bass player (Jane Deasey) who sings such standards as “In My Room” and, of course, “Gloria.” Best of all is L7’s “You’re on My S— List,” which kicks off the musical part of this most unusual show.

“The Patient Gloria” might be improved if Moxley played us more of the real tapes. Watching this 75-minute play, I kept thinking how much more effective the George Cukor-directed film “The Chapman Report” is at exposing the patriarchy of doctors and sex researchers. Released in 1962, it’s from the same era as the Gloria Szymanski tapes and now shows up occasionally on TCM. Its deadly serious portraits of a nymphomaniac (Claire Bloom), an adultress (Shelley Winters) and a frigid woman (Jane Fonda) speak more forcefully across the decades than Moxley’s camp treatment of the subject.