4:36 PM CST, January 13, 2013
"Side Effects May Include …," the new solo comedy from the "Seinfeld" writer Marc Jaffe and playwright Eric Coble, bills itself as a play about Parkinson's disease. By Act 2, it feels very much like a show about sex.
That's because an increased libido is one of the side effects of a common drug, Ropinirole (or Requip), taken to control the onset of this debilitating and uncurable condition. For Phil, the middle-age, stand-up comic (married to a doctor) whose musings and monologues make up the short two-act show, this is a highly desirable new state of affairs. And he gleefully reveals how a marriage with a hitherto moribund sex life morphs into an energetic series of several-times-a-day couplings that almost wear out the necessary equipment, at least on one side of the bed (or kitchen table).
In many ways, you can see why Jaffe clings to this particular theme. Writing a comedy about Parkinson's is not easy, and sex is funny. Phil is, of course, a version of Jaffe himself, and the way the character struggles with the woman he loves developing young-onset Parkinson's is a reflection of the real situation faced by Jaffe and his wife, the Ohio physician Karen Jaffe. The two have made their situation public on Fox News and on other local and national media outlets, and have started a comedy foundation, "Shaking With Laughter," designed to raise funds for, and awareness of, the medical advances against the disease. (A portion of the box office revenue from this show is going to that fight.) This show is part of the message that it's not a good long-term strategy for anyone to keep Parkinson's secret from family members and supporters.
"Side Effects May Include …" is thus a very worthy project, although that sexual theme does, in fact, overwhelm the show's initially promising deeper themes of change, support and struggle, which are raised but dropped much too quickly here. Many people with medical situations like Parkinson's do, in fact, see the humor of all aspects of their situation — even the ones for which they keep their clothes on — and the show does not need to skip away from those more difficult issues in quite such a rush to the bedroom. The jokes may be less obvious elsewhere, and they may require more risk, but the rewards would be greater.
In Chicago, "Side Effects" is performed for MadKap Productions by local actor and comic Andrew J. Pond, working under the direction of Wayne Mell. Given the small size of the Greenhouse studio — here filled with a terrific set from Robert D. Estrin that makes a collage from pills, a bed and the stage of a comedy club — a more subtle level of performance would be desirable. Pond is quite a funny, wacky guy, but everything in this show tends to be slightly overplayed — a repetitive tendency you can also see in the script, which has a habit of carrying its gags one step too far, diminishing both thematic and comedic surprises. Along with more pace and subtlety, the script also needs heightened dramatic tension. We want to see Phil arrive somewhere new by the end of the piece, but it feels more like he has just arrived at the end of his routine, his mental state mostly unchanged.
Writing such a piece, such a personal story, is far from easy. The hard truth, of course, is that once another actor in another city takes it over, the story has to be about far more than one couple and offer insights for others whose struggles may or may not involve this particular situation, which is hardly the only monkey-wrench that can be thrown into life. "Side Effects May Include …" has the potential to be an important contribution to the argument that adversity can be made more bearable by love and laughter, but that means confronting the very toughest stuff. Jaffe and Coble should give the work another pass-through; mostly, the show needs more risk, a concept not unfamiliar to anyone with facing down Parkinson's or any other life-changing challenge.
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