“ESSPY”, a comedy that asks, “Can compassion be taught?”

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Tim Liu is sitting at a table and Lipica Shah is standing and holding a coffee cup
Tim Liu and Lipica Shah in Nandita Shenoy’s ESSPY. (Photo by Andrea Phox Photography)
Tim Liu, Ching Valdés-Aran and Lipica Shah are in a doctors office
Tim Liu, Ching Valdés-Aran and Lipica Shah in Nandita Shenoy’s ESSPY. (Photo by Andrea Phox Photography)

The New Jersey Repertory Company opens its 2024-25 season with the world premiere of Nandita Shenoy’s ESSPY, directed by Peter J. Kuo. This new play, set in a big city medical school from 2012 to 2018, follows a medical student and his interactions with his attending physician and an ESSPY.  ESSPY stands for Standardized Patient, an actor who trains future physicians in the art of interacting with patients on a human level.

We follow first year student William Chen (Tim Liu), who in medical knowledge is one of the top pupils of Dr. Mendoza (Ching Valdes-Aran). Mendoza, grudgingly accepting her assignment, is overseeing William’s interaction with ESSPY Anu Shilpa (LIpica Shah). William is extremely nervous, as his evaluations in these exercises will determine if he can continue his medical studies.

His anxiety creates a series of verbal faux pas while talking to his “patient”. Subsequent training sessions help William to overcome his nervousness, as do chance meetings with Anu outside of school. She gives him techniques that she, as an actress, uses to overcome performance anxieties.

Within the training setting over the next few years, William, Anu, and Dr. Mendoza reveal parts of their lives to each other. The parents of William and Anu are all physicians, and while William bowed to their insistence that he follow a medical career, Anu broke away to pursue her dream of an acting career.

Dr. Mendoza fusses over the university’s money spent on teaching “bedside manner” while her own department has not been upgraded in decades, until Anu opens her eyes to where that money has not gone. Dr. Mendoza relates how hard her path has been in medicine, first as one of the few women in medical school in the Philippines, then having to go through a residency a second time after she emigrated to America.

Playwright Shenoy, who has herself been an ESSPY, avoids many cliches in her script, and the ones she does use tend to get subverted in the furtherance of the plot. It is rare to see a mature opposite-sex relationship built on mutual trust and respect, as William and Anu achieve.

Director Kuo, navigating with ease the demands of the script, shows his skill by eliciting performances from his cast that are human and relatable, yet allowing them to indulge in comic excess at times. Actors Liu, Valdes-Aran, and Shah each bring out their characters inner selves, creating not only individually expert performances but also a realistic group dynamic. 

ESSPY has plenty of comic moments, yet like the best comedies it has moments of serious emotional content as well. It portrays the characters’ individual growth over the span of years as well as their slow creation of satisfying relationships. To answer the play’s question, “Can compassion be taught?”, ESSPY to me seems to answer, “No, but it can be learned.”

It’s worth the trip to Long Branch to see the New Jersey Repertory Company’s production of ESSPY.

ESSPY is presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through March 17, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit njrep.org or call 732-229-3166.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.