This Analysis Is a Quackup

Playwright John Patrick Shanley once told the New York Times that he bought a copy of Baron Richard von Krafft-Ebing's 19th-century textbook Psychopathia Sexualis because "I have an unhealthy interest in sex and eccentric German people." (Well, who doesn't?) It might stand to reason then that he named his 1997 comedy Psychopathia Sexualis because it, too, is about sex and eccentric German people (one living shrink and a couple of dead ones). The play is also about an American painter with an argyle sock fetish, his best friend, his so-called Freudian analyst, and the woman who saves him from a life of impotence.

If that plot sounds somewhat familiar, it's because Shanley, who wrote the screenplay for the 1987 film Moonstruck as well as the popular comedy Italian American Reconciliation, tends to conceive of the world as consisting of pairs of men redeemed by a strong woman. Such a triangle exists in Psychopathia Sexualis. Arthur, a milquetoast of an artist, confesses his footwear fetish to his would-be best man Howard, indicating that his future marriage is thus jeopardized. He explains that his shrink, the exquisitely named Dr. Block, has stolen his socks and thus his ability to perform in bed. Next he charges Howard with recovering the socks, a challenge that Howard boldly accepts.

Howard, it seems, is no stranger to the world of psychotherapy, having recently left his job as a successful mutual fund manager and begun to analyze his own dreams. In place of studying dividends and interest rates, Howard now spends his time reading the great German psychotherapists Reich, Freud, and Jung. Why not, then, become a therapist, asks Arthur? "Too toxic," explains Howard, who suspects that coming face to face with the neuroses of others is not fun.

That's where he's wrong. As soon as Howard steps inside Dr. Block's office -- with the express purpose of retrieving Arthur's socks -- the real fun begins. Dr. Block isn't a real-life construct, of course. (When was the last time you met a Freudian analyst? They've long been an extinct breed.) If anything, he's a kinder, gentler version of the poisonous psychotherapists who often turn up in contemporary movies and plays as convenient -- and often lame -- plot devices. But when Block starts deconstructing Howard, beginning with Howard's own analysis of his fragile mental state, the wordplay that Shanley devises for him is hilarious.

In the production currently on stage in Coral Gables, Block is played by the captivatingly suave David Kwiat, who certainly embodies the idea of an evil shrink or at least a maniacal cat playing with its prey (and he's a pretty eccentric German). "You've read things," he says to Howard. "I hate that in a patient." For the next five minutes, Block launches into his visitor with an astoundingly funny barrage of psychobabble, cackling hysterically when Howard proffers his interpretation of a portentous dream and ridiculing the notion that "amateurs" know anything about the workings of the mind. Then the doctor sums up his own authoritative stance by asserting, "I'm a crackpot, a quack!" Take that, you self-serious members of the healing profession.

Dr. Block is one of Shanley's most inventive characters, one to whom Kwiat more than does justice, delivering a riveting performance. (Interestingly, Edward Herrmann, an actor with a completely different set of tricks, got great notices in the role when the show ran in New York.) And though the play is no closer to a serious satire on psychotherapy than Block is to a real therapist, the doctor's antics stay in the head much longer than any other aspect of this fluffy comedy.

Any other aspect than Lucille, perhaps. Arthur's fiancee is described by another character as "a Hillbilly Aztec Evita," which is a good thing, given the challenge she faces. Whereas Cher's character in Moonstruck saves Nicolas Cage merely by responding to the hair on his chest like a grown woman, and whereas Janice in Italian American Reconciliation wins salvation for husband Huey by charming him despite the fact that she shot his dog, the woman-savior of Psychopathia Sexualis goes where no Shanley heroine has gone before: into the therapist's office to fix what Arthur's male friend cannot.

The second-act confrontation between Arthur's fiancee and his doctor is a tour de comedy, one in which Lucille silences the good doctor by responding to his demand for a quick analysis of her relationship with her parents -- which Lucille recognizes as the psychological equivalent of a quickie -- by retorting, "I'm not going to talk about it." Played by Sharón Kremen, Lucille may have a Texas accent, but she's a catholic representative of idealized American womanhood, and a fine bullshitter to boot. "I can look at a woman's shoes and know that she is a hypocrite," Lucille says of her own ability to navigate the world.

Shanley, who writes romantic comedies about less-than-perfect men, clearly sees these women as mythical and strangely powerful. What they frequently aren't, however, is emotionally compelling. In his other plays, including Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and Savage in Limbo (the less said about the screenplay for Joe Versus the Volcano, the better), these characters arrive spouting the worst sort of greeting card wisdom. Here, though, Shanley is less concerned with philosophizing and more intent on entertaining. In that, he succeeds.

The GableStage production also succeeds. Joseph Adler directs with a flair for comedy both subtle and broad. (We first see Lucille, for example, spread out on her bed, wearing her wedding dress and munching on that old phallic standby, a banana.) He seemingly allows his actors to use their own creative resources, with great results in the case of Kwiat and Kremen, not to mention the likable Drew Sattee, who plays Arthur. For reasons unknown, though, he allows the talented David Cirone, who plays Howard, to sport a kind of British accent that's never explained. (The fifth member of the cast, Marcy Ruderhausen, plays Howard's wife Ellie as the small role it is.)

Kudos to set designer Lyle Baskin, who has given Howard's home, Lucille's apartment, and Dr. Block's office each a wacky, unhinged feel by suggesting walls that don't meet at right angles. These walls are actually scrims that, with help from lighting designer Jeff Quinn, give way to a backdrop depicting the Manhattan skyline. Quinn's purple and green lighting environments for the different scenes also push all the right buttons. Daniela Schwimmer's costumes, too, are just right.

With all this talent going for it, the GableStage has turned in a great first season under artistic director Adler. Here's hoping that future seasons will serve up works that maintain these excellent production values while pushing the dramatic envelope a little more. I like to leave the theater in the thrall of challenging new works that aren't going to evaporate before I walk to my car. Rather than just admire your stagecraft, I want to feel more emotionally engaged. I think Dr. Block would approve.

Psychopathia Sexualis.
Written by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Joseph Adler. Starring Marcy Ruderhausen, David Cirone, Drew Sattee, David Kwiat, and Sharón Kremen. Through July 18. GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, 305-445-1119.

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Robin Dougherty