Eliza Clark’s comedy ‘Quack’ is a prescient look at the culture of fame
By Bliss Bowen
If you want your play to have that just-ripped-from-the-headlines feel, it helps to start writing it a year or two ahead of time.
That’s one takeaway from conversations with two members of the collegial team currently rehearsing Eliza Clark’s smart comedy “Quack,” which opens Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. The play takes a sharply humorous look at what happens when a famous health TV show host finds his marriage, career and future prospects collapsing after he is savaged by a news expose — echoing numerous scandals about prominent men abusing women’s trust that hadn’t yet made headlines when Clark began workshopping “Quack” about two years ago.
“I think she started writing it in 2016, before all of this crazy stuff coming out about all these men in power,” says actress Jackie Chung, who portrays the nurse/assistant and “right-hand woman” of lead character Dr. Irving Baer. While not directly modeled after a Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil, per se, Baer does have a TV show, which gives him — like several men who’ve recently toppled from mighty positions — a high platform from which to fall.
“We’re thinking, like, ‘Oh my God, Eliza, what else can you tell us about the future?’” says Chung with a laugh. “But it does look at a very famous man, and what [celebrity] does to a person.”
Director Neel Keller recalls hearing an early draft of the five-character play in June 2017 as part of a writers’ workshop with CTG (Center Theatre Group, of which the Kirk Douglas Theatre is a part, and where Keller is an associate artistic director).
At that time, he says, it seemed like “a reaction to the combination of celebrity culture, of the election of Donald Trump, of the rise of the alt-right,” even though Trump is never mentioned in Clark’s story about an influential celebrity whose carefully constructed public image is shredded by a whirlwind of accusations and media coverage. Baer’s response to those events, and a developing men’s rights movement, drives the plot as well as the comedy.
“I found the balance of comedy with what really is a very scary contemporary subject thrilling, theatrically,” says Keller, who compares the play’s trajectory to a roller coaster ride. “Then we began working on the play, and it became clear how prescient Eliza had been because events of the world began to unfold and continued to unfold, right up until this month. We’ve now seen this story played out dozens of times, in a frightening way in all regards — this story of people in power being questioned, and then that questioning taking on a viral speed and frenzy, both for good and for bad, and the turmoil that ensues and the mixed motives of the various complicit parties in all that public shaming.
“Who’s involved when a celebrity goes through that kind of process?” Keller continues to muse. “What’s at play? Who’s pulling strings?”
Gender power discrepancies, issues and imbalances figure significantly in the subtext of the play, as Baer has been offering health and wellness advice to a primarily female audience for 20 years. As portrayed by Emmy-winning “Scandal” actor Dan Bucatinsky, Baer’s voluble indignation is stoked by his perception of himself as “a great champion of women and a great feminist,” according to Keller, who notes that Bucatinsky is onstage for almost every scene.
“Dan was very, very happily part of the last workshop we had before we started production,” he says. “He’s an incredibly talented actor and a hard worker, which you need for a new play like this when it has a role that large; it’s
a mountain to climb, and you need an actor who can really lead the whole cast in tackling the work.”
Chung, who says she was happy to find “a thriving theatre scene” in LA when she moved here from New York, worked with Keller four years ago when he staged Kimber Lee’s drama “different words for the same thing” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. “Quack” demands greater speed and a very different tone from the actors as they trade zingers and balance sharp-edged comedy (“Eliza has a great ear for dialogue,” says Chung) with subtler, more serious questions about the people around the skewered celebrities who knowingly or unknowingly enable them.
“What I love so much about this play,” says Chung, “is that you find yourself empathizing with people you don’t think you should.”
“Quack” opens Sunday, Oct. 28, and continues through Nov. 18 at Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. $25 to $72. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.