Sidney Kingsley’s Men In White is a vivid drama about doctors, their lives and their practice in a hospital in 1933, the year the play was first produced.  It builds on a fascinating tension between the image of doctors as heroic and pure — “men in white” — and the fact that they’re as prone as the rest of us to mistaken notions, ethical quandaries, and yielding to temptations.

George Ferguson is the most promising of the young doctors at St. George’s Hospital.  He’s so bright and idealistic he’s headed for research with the great Dr. Hochberg — a professional coup — and he’s so able an M.D. that he’s called on constantly …. to set a broken leg … catheterize a patient … administer a shot (in those days when the medical arsenal was thinner, these general surgeons did everything).  He’s not only skilled, he’s ethical — seizing the instruments from the hands of an important M.D. who’s using the wrong method, and going on to save the patient’s life.

Will he cave in to the pressing demands for “fun” and a “full life” of his fiancée, Laura, when yet another medical emergency forces him to break a date with her — again?  She’s bitterly disappointed and near to fed-up but, forthrightly and honestly, he conveys to her his sense of duty as well as his conflict, and suggests a date for the next night.

Thus he passes the first tests of his idealistic devotion to medicine and human betterment.  But others come along, as they’re bound to, and he — like others of his colleagues — sometimes fails to do the right thing, or does the wrong one.

Through George Ferguson, his beautiful, fun-loving  fiancée, Laura, and his medical and scientific mentor Dr. Hochberg, this play examines issues that are as important today as they were in 1933.  The intense strains placed on physicians (and other professionals) in the course of arduous training and practice continue to put loving relationships to hard tests — although today the professionalism of women is more likely to figure among the personal conflicts.

The play was very bold for its time in staging a gruesome operation to try to save the life of a young woman victimized by an illegal abortion, dramatizing the significance of the struggle for legalized abortion, and reminding us of the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancies that still extract the highest costs from women throughout the world.

And the conflict between the intense demands of vocational and other idealism and the high purposes of a loving life is timeless.

It’s welcome that The Seeing Place Theater has given us the opportunity to see Men In White, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1934.  Watching on opening night, however, I thought the play had been under-rehearsed.  There were distracting line flubs, some of which led to factual anachronisms such as a doctor recommending “antibiotics,” not yet discovered in 1933 — quick thinking on a missed cue but it came out wrong — and language anachronisms like “the both of them” for “both of them,” along with other improvisational patches.

While these things can be smoothed out, there’s a mismatch, between the goals of this theater group and the style needed to produce this play effectively.

The “behavioral storytelling” approach described in the group’s statement includes the pauses, repetitions, and multi-tries of our everyday language:  this creates a slow pace inconsistent with the mood of the text, and makes you feel you’re losing touch with the playwright.  Movement, too, appears improvisational, evidently because, according to the statement, “There is very little blocked on stage … ”  leading to diminished visual interest.

Men In White is of a crisp 1930’s genre that needs fast repartee and stage movement related to the action, and doesn’t lend itself to long pauses while actors seem to look into themselves (and on opening night, for all the world gave the impression they were trying to remember their lines).

I admire the creative idealism of this group, working toward depth through its “pro-actor philosophy” and method acting-like techniques, and I look forward to seeing how their ideas may animate in new ways other plays on their ambitious program.

Men In White plays at ATA’s Sargent Theater on West 54th Street in Manhattan through November 24th.

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