Like the doctor whose monologue opens his new play, playwright Tom Horan clearly believes in medicinally adding jokes to ease some of life’s brutal realities.
In “Typhoid Mary” (world premiering at the Phoenix Theatre through May 24), his three-actor spin on the story behind the story, the core concerns Mary the notorious disease-carrier (Lauren Briggeman). The feisty immigrant cook, passionate about her work, can’t—like much of the medical establishment of her time—grasp how she could possibly have anything to do with the typhoid fever cases that seem to follow her from job to job.
Grim, intense stuff, yes. And Briggeman knows well how to slowly reveal the doubts behind Mary’s hard-won toughness. Horan, though, isn’t interested in giving us straight-up History Channel docudrama. Instead, he, director Bill Simmons, and the supporting duo (Ben Asakykwee and Jolene Mentink Moffatt) ramp up the comedy, with Python-esque props, bumbling police officers, and an act-one ending sight gag that I won’t give away (but which pays off dramatically in the second half).
Some of the antics work, some don’t, with a particularly odd, unfortunate sequence calling to mind both “Dumbo” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” But there’s no denying Horan’s inventiveness. Even as it fishes for both laughs and conflict, “Typhoid Mary” remains interesting, and its central character fascinating. And the play’s core questions—sometimes asked directly to the audience—remain relevant.