Kitchen Dog Theater's Medical Comedy Rx Produces Positive Side Effects

Programs handed out at performances of Rx at Kitchen Dog Theater should list possible side effects of seeing the new Kate Fodor play: sudden bursts of laughter, slapped knees, tickled ribs, split sides. And if you relate to the predicaments of the characters, perhaps some major waves of empathy.

Such a funny, bittersweet play, acted with the right dose of broad comedy mixed with touching human frailty by a wonderful cast led by KDT company members Tina Parker and Max Hartman. In two hours, Rx sends up our pill-dependent culture while commenting on our mind-numbingly dull work environments. Plus there's a nice layer of rom-com.

Parker is Meena, managing editor of the "piggeries" section of a cattle and swine magazine. She hates her job (why wouldn't she?) and wants to be part of a clinical trial for a new drug that a Big Pharma purveyor promises will cure every case of the Mondays.

To get her biweekly bottles of SP-925 (get it?), Meena must undergo some prodding and questioning by a nervous Dr. Phil Gray (Hartman), who works for the drug company. "You might be suffering from workplace depression," he tells her. "It's a disease ... we hope." She's so bored editing stories about beef and pork that she's desperate to be his chemical guinea pig. "I just think I was meant for better things," she wails.

The company's tightly wound marketing director, Allison Hardy (Martha Harms, like Mary Tyler Moore with an evil glint), pushes Dr. Phil to get good results from the trial. There is big money in convincing cubicle slaves there's a pill that will make them love their soul-sucking professions. But not just any serfs qualify; only those making $65K or more a year. Below that, nobody cares if you're miserable.

Enrolled in the program, Meena doesn't pep up right away. She worries she's on the placebo, not the real stuff. And she still weeps a lot, just not in the office. There's a quiet corner of a nearby department store where she sheds her tears, slumped under an enormous display of big white granny panties. That's where she meets Frances (Jane Willingham being very Betty White), a cheerful widow who, 27 years after her husband's death, suddenly feels energized enough to take jazz dance lessons and travel to the Galapagos Islands to see the big turtles.

Back at Health Is Wealth, Inc., marketing whiz Allison is selling shareholders on SP-925 — "Marketing meetings turn me on like almost nothing else!" she squeals — and another new line of snake oil that might cure heartbreak. Side effects of that one include gum inflammation and loosening teeth, but isn't that better than the persistent ache of rejection?

Directed by Christopher Carlos with the galloping pace of a 1930s Carole Lombard movie — 20-plus scene changes are handled with admirable alacrity by the actors — Rx takes a light touch to some heavy themes. And Fodor wraps it all around that romantic subplot that has Meena and her doctor falling in love during the every-other-week exams. He talks to her about poetry (she had a book of prose poems published long before she started editing columns about factory farming). She finds ways to look coquettish in a green hospital gown. He sends her a picture of his feet. She inspires him to do more meaningful medicine away from the corporate pill-pushers.

Few Dallas actors are as good at portraying awkward romantic feelings as Parker and Hartman, and they are perfect for Rx, which has them on opposite ends of an emotional teeter-totter. When one's up, the other's down. How their characters find balance in life and love requires some bold moves and personal sacrifice, with a life lesson or two from the old lady in the panty department. How such delicate emotions are communicated from the stage at Kitchen Dog is where Parker and Hartman get to display their considerable skills as stage actors.

Rx also contains the funniest sex scene on a Dallas stage in eons. Meena, buzzed from the SP-925, gets excited during a routine meeting with her senior editor, Simon (Christopher Curtis), and in a flash, clothes are flying and the two are doing it piggy-style on the desk. (Linda Blase's dynamic lighting design gives it a splash of disco.)

Rounding out the cast is John Flores, playing two roles, including a mad scientist so obsessed with Einstein that he doesn't wear socks.

If you need a little cheering up, Rx is just what the doctor ordered.