The Comfort of Darkness Should Not Have Seen the Light of Day

You would think that a play about Dr. Anton Mesmer, the man whose name is the root for the word mesmerize, might be, well mesmerizing.  However, you would be wrong.

The Comfort of Darkness by Joel Gross, now in its world premiere production at Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton, is based on the real-life relationship between Mesmer and his patient, Maria-Theresa von Paradis, a young musician whose blindness Mesmer tried to cure with his unique treatment.

Set in Vienna in 1777,   Mesmer believes he can cure Maria-Theresa through animal magnetism, by letting the energy in his body flow into hers.  And even though the whole animal magnetism theory sounds like a bad pick-up line, the two become lovers.  But while Mesmer believes curing Maria-Theresa’s blindness will give the medical community indisputable evidence that his practices work, the incident leads to scandal for both doctor and patient.

Gross, who wrote the interminable Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh, which was also produced by Caldwell, overdoes it on his love-can-open-our-eyes theme.  His heavy-handedness sells his audience short.

As Mesmer, Stevie Ray Dallimore carries the play by turning in a passionate, yet naturalistic performance.  Dallimore possesses a strong voice and can keep a straight face while delivering Gross’s clunky dialogue.  His charisma alone makes the ridiculous scenes when Mesmer waves his hands and arms over his patients’ bodies watchable.

It’s unfortunate that Jessalyn Maguire, who plays Maria-Theresa, does not match Dallimore’s level of passion.  Maguire’s delivery is flat as cardboard, and the two have zero chemistry.

Jane Cortney gets some of the play’s best lines, but the poor thing doesn’t have a clue as to what to do with them.  Kenneth Kay is decent, but his role is muddy—one minute he’s a jovial drunken sidekick, the next he’s the most powerful doctor in the medical community.

There are many moments when the audience laughs appropriately, though it’s doubtful that comedy is what the playwright was going for.

But the sight of a beautiful young woman lying blindfolded on a chaise while a handsome man waves his hands over her, describing what parts of her body she should feel his magnetism flow into hers, while she convulses and exclaims that she feels it—well, it’s not sexy, just silly.  It looks less like a cure for blindness and more like they’re indulging in tantric sex.

Later, when Maria-Theresa refuses treatment from Mesmer’s assistant, cooing that she’ll wait for the doctor and his “stick therapy,” the play feels like a bad sex farce.  But you’ve got to hand it to Mesmer.  From what we see on stage, apparently he was capable of giving his patients orgasms without even touching them. That alone should secure his place in history.

The Caldwell’s world premiere of The Comfort of Darkness is handsome indeed, with Alberto Arroyo’s sumptuous costumes and Tim Bennett’s elegant set.  It’s a shame the play does not live up to the production.

The Comfort of Darkness runs through September 5 at the Caldwell Theatre, located in the Count de Hoernle Theatre in Boca Raton.  For more information, visit CaldwellTheatre.com.


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