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Upstart's New Comedy The Better Doctor Can't Find Its Pulse

Matt Lyle's new play The Better Doctor has a lot to say about the American healthcare industry. But it says it without talking. As the latest in Lyle's series of "silent films for the stage," Doctor keeps the actors on mute. It's like The Artist meets ER.

If only the directors of this Upstart Production show, Justin Locklear and Cassie Bann, had studied more closely the old silent film comedies of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd. Or even taken a look at Jean Dujardin's tribute to those silent movie masters in his Oscar-winning performance in The Artist. Dujardin used his face so efficiently, sometimes just an eyebrow or a twitch of his lip to express a thought or emotion. On the screen, he got the luxury of a glowing close-up. On a stage that's some distance from the viewers and separated from them by a gray scrim, it's hard to see any actors' expression. (Upstart has new digs just west of the bridge off Singleton Boulevard. It's a warren of rooms that lead to a big warehouse space being used as theater. Renovation is still in progress.)

Upstart's staging of The Better Doctor is measled with flaws. Their technical stuff is first-rate, with backdrops that are works of art and 1920s period costumes rendered carefully in shades of black, white and gray. But they didn't work hard enough on developing split-second timing for the required sight gags, working up some clever comedy bits in the Harold Lloyd mode and teaching the actors how to communicate to the audience without dialogue.

Lyle's previous silent play, The Boxer, performed first at the Festival of Independent Theatres and then at Dallas Children's Theater, was just about perfect. Its actors - Jeff Swearingen, Ben Bryant, Kim Geiter Lyle, in particular - have big, bright faces suited to silent performance. They're crackerjack physical comics, with innate timing that elicits huge laughs for even the smallest gags.

Better Doctor has the potential for that but its directors and cast have missed it. The direction is mushy, the performances dull. The leading lady, Lindsay Barrett, has long bangs covering her eyes. The Harold Lloyd character is played by Ezra Jesse Bookman in too-small glasses and shruggy gestures. They're not funny.

The script is a sharp send-up of our messed-up healthcare system. Three sick and injured urchins (Manon and Lily McCollum, Nadaha McCollough) try to get help at a big hospital. But the doctors kick them out for being unable to pay. A young intern (Bookman) cooks up a scheme to sneak them in, but that fails, too. A visit to a mad pharmacist (Ben Schroth, a veteran of Pegasus Theatre's movie-inspired black-and-white plays) ends in disappointment when the price of pills is sky-high.

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The medical system as farce. Good idea, pregnant with possibilities.

A live band led by Wade Cofer provides some themes and sound effects. (B. Wolf's wittier piano improvs were much funnier for The Boxer.) It's all over in 75 minutes, which feels much longer, like the waiting time at a busy doc-in-the-box.

The Better Doctor continues through May 20 at The Nest, 425 Bedford. Go to upstarttheater.com for tickets. (All Thursday performances are pay-what-you-can.)

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