There’s a lot of foreplay in Mark St. Germain’s bio-play about sex educator and media personality Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, a show receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company’s second stage in the Massachusetts Berkshires. But “Dr. Ruth, All the Way” makes for a less-than-fulfilling theatrical experience, despite an indefatigable and touching performance by Debra Jo Rupp as the diminutive, always-upbeat therapist.
The entertaining show could have future one-night stands just on people’s affection for the good doctor and her straight-talking style. But if it wants a meaningful, longer-term relationship, then more work needs to be done on the play, especially in connecting biography with the therapist’s late-in-life celebrity of sex.
Unlike St. Germain’s recent plays dealing with powerful clash of ideas of famous figures in “Freud’s Last Session” and “Best of Enemies,” “Dr. Ruth” fits into — and is limited by — the traditional bio-solo show format.
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To his credit, St. Germain plays with the structure a bit, with his Dr. Ruth acknowledging the theatricality of talking directly to her audience at the show’s beginning. “I’m so glad you’re here. This is so much better than talking to yourself,” says the woman who first gained famed talking to unseen listeners on the radio.
She charms, she jokes, she titillates with a voice and accent that is part German, part Jewish, part Disneyland. Like the woman herself (now 84, and who was sitting in the audience on opening night), this character is hard not to like.
And it seems everyone wants her counsel: from President Clinton to “Mike the Mover” who is going to help her pack up her cluttered Washington Heights apartment following the death of her third husband, Fred, in 1997, the ostensible and hardly dramatic set-up of the play. On the phone she reminds Mike, who is dealing with a sexual problem, to “love your penis… and bring bubble w’ap.”
After a snappy beginning, the over-long two-act play then settles down into conventional biography, fueled by the principal conventions of the genre: chronology and telephone calls.
She tells of her eventful life story, sprinkled with celebrity digressions, some amusing and pointed, others more-or-less name-dropping.
She tells of watching Nazis take her father from his home in 1938 when she was 10, of her kinder transport to safety in Switzerland away from her mother and grandmother who would later be taken to concentration camps; of her time as a sniper in Palestine and living a kibbutz; of her arrival in the U.S.; of her three marriages and two children; of being underestimated because of her sex, stature or status.
But pluck can become as tiresome as some of the show’s sentiment and the tedious song she sings along with a filmed projection of Tom Chapin.
Dr. Ruth’s principal persona — as a sex therapist — doesn’t get a spotlight or much of an analysis until well into the second act. By the play’s end, her biography, especially surrounding her beginnings, is clear but there’s still a feeling that in the telling it did not go all the way.