Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The show opens with a video clip of Bloom in 1985, performing a cabaret act at an upright piano, playing and singing songs he wrote. The number, "My Name is Stuart Bloom," is pretty witty, laced with modestly self-deprecating zingers, while the melody has the jaunty feel of a 1960s topical satiric revue. The young Bloomin his mid-20sturns his head up from the keyboard and toward the audience as often as possible, with the look of a child opening birthday giftshaving the time of his life and sure hoping the audience likes it, and him, too.
From this bouncy, lighthearted beginning, we are brought up to here and now, with the mid-60s Stuart, aka Dr. Bloom, center stage and besieged by images (on screen) of nurses and receptionists unleashing a flood of patient requests, problems, appointments, troubling results, more and more and more until the good doctor goes into what looks like a full blown seizure and winds up flat on the floor. At this juncture, he is joined by a tall charming man (Bloom too is charming, but considerably less tall), who we learn is Bloom's Inner Voice.
Inner Voice diagnoses Bloom: he is burned out. When Bloom vehemently resists that chargeissuing as proof the fact that he shows up for work every dayInner Voice challenges him to take the "Are You Burned Out" quiz and see how he does. The remainder of the showwhich runs, yes, 73 minutesconsists of Inner Voice asking a question and Bloom answering with monologue and song.
This set-up takes us through Bloom's salad days in show biz, his decision to become a doctor, and the trials of med school, followed by his residency where, after years of course work he realizes he knew next to nothing about actual practice. He shares the line he learned to make a quick exit from patients when he is at the end of his limited bag of tricks: "Gotta Run." He questions the awesome responsibilities thrust on doctors, asking "What Don't I Know Now?" and wonders if giving an encouraging report or presenting options for treatment isn't merely a stop-gap ("My Life as a Placebo") that all too briefly assuages his patients' pain.
In "Boo-Hoo"the show's most powerful pieceBloom reveals the pain he feels in having to deliver bad news and preside over hopeless outcomes, while recognizing that his patients are caught up in their own suffering, not his. On a cynical note, he skewers the hours spent filing online reports which do nothing to help patients, but are required by insurance companies in order to get paid ("Click a Box"). He wails "They say that this is patient care, but the patient is nowhere near."
Fortunately, the picture is not all glum. Bloom makes good use of personal anecdotes to offer compelling evidence that, in spite of all of the above, there are tremendous rewards in his profession, and that even with all the speed bumps and potholes, he does help patients. Without whitewashing the real challenges inherent in being a physician, How to Avoid Burnout in 73 Minutes points the way toward uplift and renewal, which one would think applies not only to doctors but to anyone in a caregiving profession.
Bloom's melodies range between lilting and sentimental, always likable if not especially memorable. His lyrics sometime strain for a rhyme, but always get their points across with humor and wit. Bloom is a force to reckon with on the piano. I wonder how a piece without lyrics, using just the piano to express the trials in the life of a physician, might fit in the show. His singing is, let's just say, not his strong point, but he sings with such earnestness, and the pleasure it gives him is so evident, that it's hard not to cheer him on. As his Inner Voice, Eric Ringham is a likable presence, effectively acting on behalf of reason, challenging the doctor and suggesting alternatives while serving as a good foil for Bloom's far showier performance.
The theater offers discounted tickets to students and doctors-in-training, and I sensed that group made up a good share of the audience at the performance I attended, with laughs that indicated a close identification with Bloom's humor and the points he makes. With the intense additional pressure medical workers face due to the pandemic, Bloom's play, and the frankness with which he reveals his own struggles, could be a balm for anyone in the field. It might be that some patientsor their loved oneshave a harder time connecting with the focus on what their doctors need, much as Bloom expresses in "Boo Hoo." Still, if they stay with it, it is hard to fault the conclusion Bloom comes to: that the best outcomes occur when patients and doctors help each other.
How to Avoid Burnout in 73 Minutes runs through September 26, 2021, at Open Eye Theatre as part of their guest artist series, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. All performances are sold out. For information, please visit openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338.
Music, Lyrics and Book: Stuart Bloom; Director: Peter Moore; Lighting and Sound Design: Alex Clark; Stage Manager: Alex Clark
Cast: Molly Bloom (Nurse), Stuart Bloom (Stu), Patty Matthews (Nurse), Debby Orenstein (Nurse), Eric Ringham (Inner Voice).