Wysiwyg Theatre Company

at Angel Island

A playwright this bad should at least have the modesty to tackle a tiny subject. In Pocket Full of Posies, a new work, local playwright Joseph Savit pretends to confront a growing problem–the unwillingness of private hospitals to treat high-risk patients–but doesn’t even approach enlightening his audience.

The emergency appendectomy of Belle Ringer, a tough-cookie prostitute, is delayed, then denied because she’s in a high-risk category–thought, but not proven, to harbor the HIV virus. Despite doctors’ elaborately nasty attempts to expel her from the hospital, Belle, who’s comically and absurdly resigned (“When you live by the prick you die by the prick”), finds an unlikely protector in Harley Barber, the unhappily married surgeon who happens to be one of her faithful customers. Suddenly in love with Belle and conveniently rediscovering the Hippocratic oath, he resolves to fight the hospital’s attempts to kick her out, even if it means losing his job.

Lending Belle some hard-boiled but otherwise improbable support is Madame Demon, Belle’s procuress–and, oddly enough, a registered nurse. In one of many stupid developments, she impulsively assists Dr. Garber in the unauthorized appendectomy. (At any moment I expected to hear, “Hey, let’s put on an operation! I know a barn we can use!”)

Savit offers no discernible plot to support the play’s predictable revelations, just an undramatized situation. And he writes in a jerky, jokey style, with heavy-handed references to the great London plague of 1665–a street person here peddles a shopping cart full of body parts, for instance–that clutter the already aimless action. Worse, the script manages to find the exact wrong mood for almost every scene, spoofing Belle’s genuine terror of the HIV test, demonizing the doctors until they’re too cartoonishly cruel to be any serious cause for concern, employing a ridiculous offstage moaning between scenes, resorting to bathroom-humor double entendres as comic relief amid Belle’s agony and to doggerel verse to convey her plight.

One example out of many scenes that are neither serious nor funny enough to come across as satire: at the end Dr. Barber suddenly remembers to tell Belle that her second HIV test came out negative. Funny how that life-and-death revelation just slipped his mind while Belle was talking with her only friend, Madame Demon, who also would have been eager for this good news. Then, so we don’t get complacent, we learn that Dr. Barber tested positive. Curtain. Savit pulls the plug on his own play–even melodramas usually end more decisively.

Pocket Full of Posies is also too narrowly focused to shed much light. The question of how to handle high-risk patients is only one part of a much larger problem: the cost of health-care insurance and the difficulty of getting treatment if you lack it (a form of discrimination that, though it hurts high-risk patients in particular, is also an act of class warfare). The play never even mentions insurance.

Faithful to a fault, Bill Endsley’s goofy staging mirrors the play’s chief flaw–a humorless silliness that trivializes all it touches. It’s hard for valiant Susan Murphy to establish the dignity of Belle’s crisis when she’s surrounded by such unpleasant oddities as David Franks’s nerdy phlebotomist, Stephen Welsh’s screeching street person, and Eileen Glenn and Jeff Strong’s cardboard-thin villainous doctors. Sharlet Webb gives a perfunctory performance as the good- hearted madam, while John McNamara plays Belle’s doctor-knight with a frenetic energy that can’t compensate for the clumsily constructed part. Savit actually attempts to make a hero out of a doctor so pigheaded he refuses to use a condom when he has sex with a hooker.

Pocket Full of Posies is sufficiently inept that audience members could read it in a way that’s opposite from the way Savit intends–as an argument that hospital admissions should be as exclusive as Bill Clinton’s golf club. After all, the falsely accused Belle eventually tests negative, while the doctor who defends her right to treatment is the very one who will soon need treatment–and will get it.