‘Esspy’ stands for standardized patient in smart new medical school comedy-drama

by JAY LUSTIG
esspy review

ANDREA PHOX PHOTOGRAPHY

From left, Tim Liu, Ching Valdés-Aran and Lipica Shah co-star in “Esspy” at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

William Chen is a star medical student. But his bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired.

Trying to persuade a mother to have her child vaccinated, he argues, “Vaccines are very important not just for the individual child but for the good of the herd … cows are vaccinated not just to immunize themselves but to protect the weakest cows in the herd.”

To which the mother responds, “Are you comparing my child to a cow?”

“Esspy” — Nandita Shenoy’s smartly written, sometimes very funny and, ultimately, emotionally resonant 90-minute play, which is currently having its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, with direction by Peter J. Kuo — follows William from 2012 to 2018. Snippets of popular songs and news broadcasts from those years, played between scenes, help indicate the passing of time.

William starts out as a first-year medical student and, by the time of the final scene, has become a chief resident. The play has to do, primarily, with William’s learning curve, in terms of showing empathy to his patients, but has a lot to say about the medical profession, and life itself.

Most of the scenes — including the play-opening one that contains the dialogue above — are training sessions in which William (played by Tim Liu) interacts with an actor named Anu (Lipica Shah), who has been hired to play patients with various issues. She is an “esspy” — that stands for S.P. (i.e., standardized patient). Supervising the sessions is the flinty Dr. Mendoza (Ching Valdés-Aran), who recognizes William’s talent but despite that — or perhaps, because of that — is brutally honest with him, about his shortcomings. (In the course of the play, she learns a thing or two about empathy herself.)

ANDREA PHOX PHOTOGRAPHY

Tim Liu and Lipica Shah in “Esspy.”

There are also a few scenes at a coffeeshop at which William and Anu bump into each other. (Jessica Parks’ clever set design allows for quick changes, back and forth, from the training room to the coffeeshop). William recognizes her first; she has no idea who he is. She works with a lot of different medical students, after all. But after years of occasional training sessions together, and chance encounters, they develop a friendship, and Anu gives him some acting tips that help him, with his patients.

It looks, at one point, that Shenoy may turn them into a romantic couple — William asks if they could meet for coffee sometime. But Anu declines, saying they probably shouldn’t, given that they may have training sessions again in the future. And Shenoy never raises the possibility of them dating again — which is good, I think. That would have been one predictable way for the story to develop, but Shenoy has plenty of other subject matter here, without that.

The setting is defined only as “a medical school in a major urban center.” William is Taiwanese-American; Anu, Indian-American; and Dr. Mendoza, Filipino-American. The fact that they are all Asian-American seems to strengthen the bond among then.

William and Anu are both the offspring of doctors, and they discuss their parents’ high expectations. Mendoza becomes something of a surrogate parent, pushing William to fulfill his potential and, somewhat stereotypically, expressing dismay that Anu is (1) intent on an acting career and (2) unmarried and childless.

Mendoza: You’re 30, aren’t you?
Anu: 34, thanks.
Mendoza: Oh dear! How long are you going to keep up this acting business? It’s too late for you to go to medical school. And you’ll need to get married so that …
Anu, changing the subject: Are the residents on their way?

ANDREA PHOX PHOTOGRAPHY

Lipica Shah in “Esspy.”

Mendoza makes it clear to William, who was raised in the United States, that her own experiences with the medical profession — as not only a woman in an era when female doctors were rare, but as someone who was educated in The Philippines and had to convince skeptical American doctors that her training was sound — was much more difficult.

“You know, William, when I was training in The Philippines, we did not have these nice actors to practice talking to,” she says. “We practiced on our patients.”

While William has doubts about himself, he at least has a clear path forward. Anu, on the other hand, is a bit of a lost soul. Spending years doing part-time work as an esspy is not exactly a prestigious thing for an actor’s résumé. And though she does get some fulfillment from it, she is really only doing it because she is finding more substantial acting jobs hard to come by.

A wild scene toward the end of the play has Anu playing a pregnant woman who experiences various complications during childbirth — Anu’s acting is totally convincing — while Mendoza, who is usually just an observer in these sessions, is forced to take on the role of a nurse. Always suspicious of this “touchy feely” form of training, she is stiff at first, but does start to get the hang of it. “This acting business might be harder than I thought,” she muses.

The play’s powerful final scene is not a training session. Real life makes its presence felt, as it does. The scene is sad but also somewhat hopeful — “bittersweet” is, perhaps, a good way to describe it.

I won’t describe what happens, of course, except to say that William has come a long way from the immature, almost excruciating awkward student he was in the early scenes, and we feel relieved, and uplifted, by that.

New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch will present “Esspy” through March 17. Visit njrep.org.

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