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Theater review: 'The Pool of Bethesda' by California Repertory Company

May 5, 2011 |  9:15 am

Pool Some plays are puzzles that must be fitted together. Such is the case with "The Pool of Bethesda," a 1991 play by English writer Allan Cubitt that has been snatched from obscurity by the adventuresome California Repertory Company.

The play shares its title with a William Hogarth painting that depicts one of Christ's miracles as a healer. The first act places a present-day doctor in 1730s London for the creation of that canvas, for which Hogarth asks the doctor to model as Christ. The doctor hardly has time, however, as he's also swept into a boxing match with another model, a sex act with a Hogarth groupie and other puzzlements.

If you were paying close attention as the story began, you might have figured out that the doctor has a brain tumor. It's causing hallucinations. This becomes clearer in the second act, when the story flips to the present day to show the doctor's real-time interactions with the people who've become mixed up in his visions.

Director Joanne Gordon paints the stage with evocative images, aided by a design team that makes every detail as moodily beautiful as those in Hogarth's work.

John Prosky and Josh Nathan share some enjoyable scenes as the doctor and his sweet-natured, vodka-dispensing orderly. Overall, however, the actors, most of whom are midcareer professionals currently or recently enrolled in Cal State Long Beach's master's program, are stiff tableau figures, not flesh-and-blood humans.

Cubitt, whose credits include the BBC's "Prime Suspect 2," touches on mortality, commitment, art, economic disparity and healthcare, but he and his interpreters here are so busy being clever that they neglect to engage our deeper thoughts. Once the pieces are put together, there's not much to contemplate.

— Daryl H. Miller

"The Pool of Bethesda," the Royal Theater aboard the Queen Mary, 1126 Queen's Highway, Long Beach. 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Ends May 14. $20. (562) 985-5526 or Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Photo: John Prosky portrays a present-day doctor who finds himself modeling for a 1730s painting by William Hogarth, interacting with, from left, Cecily Overman, Anna Steers and Sarah Underwood as others in Hogarth's studio. Credit: Keith Ian Polakoff.