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NY Theater Review by Alix Cohen

Jules Romains’ immensely appealing satire about the craziest of stock market swindles and its outcome was published as a novel in 1920 and presented by its author as a play 9 years later. Le Figaro’s theatrical review referred to “skill and vitality” we observe in about half this overlong, sometimes plodding production. Part of the issue may be translation, part is pace and heavy handed direction, part lays on the shoulders of a mostly lackluster cast helmed by star James Riordan (Lamendin) who is missing the comedy gene.

It’s a pity. One can only assume rigorous adherence to authenticity kept the otherwise estimable Mint Theater, of whom I am an enormous fan, from cutting this piece. The rest is inexplicable.

The tale: Talked out of a suicidal leap by his friend Benin (Mitch Greenberg), Lamendin is sent to the offices of Miguel Rufisque (George Morfogen) for scientific cure of his ailing spirit. An enormous analyzation machine (computers didn’t exist) examines the subject’s thoughts through a make-it-in-your-basement-looking helmet. Mathematical calculations dictate that our hero stand in front of The Mosque of Paris awaiting someone who blows his or her nose at exactly 5:15, then committing his life to that person in any capacity the handkerchief holder desires. Skeptically, Lamendin follows through.

Said nose is blown by Professor Le Trouhadec (George Morfogen) whose sole ambition is to be elected to the French Academy of Geographers. The professor has been blackballed for the early career mistake of having faked discovery of a Brazilian jungle community in order to make a splash. Vindication can only be achieved by proving the existence of Donogoo Tonka.

With the help of a corrupt bank director (Douglas Rees), a faux pitch is created with ostensibly on-site film shot in the Bois de Boulogne, anecdotes provided by an actor in a pith helmet and the reading of an elaborate description by professor Le Trouhadec replete with tribal history. A prospectus from The Universal Franco-American Group (with ambiguous map) is printed in multiple languages. Shares in the development of Donogoo Tonka and its estimable natural resources (including gold) start selling like mad.

Eventually, of course, questions arise. Proof must be secured. Lamedin is packed off to Brazil kicking and screaming with equipment, funds and personnel to physically create the village. He isn’t the first to arrive. What he finds and that which follows is extremely clever.

Both Douglas Rees (The Bank Manager) and Mitch Greenberg (Benin) rise above the fray creating credible and engaging characterization. One sits at attention when they speak. As Lamendin, James Riordon’s performance ranges from flat to mugging.

Projections by Roger Hanna and Price Johnston and Graphics by Hey Jude Graphics Inc are inspired. A mixture of sepia-toned photography and original illustration, these imaginative and amusing backgrounds are enlivened by something unexpected in each scene. Metro (subway) doors open to reveal a real passage through which a character disappears, then the train/projection moves on revealing art of the platform. A waiter holds a real cup to the screened coffee machine, steam comes out, coffee is poured. Fireplace flames move and crackle, a clock pendulum moves… Promotional footage of Donogoo is a hoot.

Sam Fleming’s Costumes are richly realized and wonderfully detailed. Many seem to wink.

For the curious, research reveals the existence of: Donogoo-Tonka or the Miracles of Science: A Cinematographic Tale (Forum Project Publications) translated by Brian Evanson.
Donogoo-or The Miracles of Science by Jules Romains
Translated and Directed by Gug Kaikkonen
Mint Theater Company 311 West 43rd St. 3rd floor
Through June 29

*Photos: Richard Termine