JOE EGG by Peter Nichols; directed, designed and lit by James D. Waring; costumes by Georgia Baker. With Stephen Joyce, Jill P. Rose, Linn Sienmetz, Judith McGilligan, Rudolph Willrich and Emily Kipp.

At The Olney Theatre through Aug 24.

There was a doctor in the house at Tuesday night's opening of "Joe Egg" -- an unhappy doctor, as he divulged during intermission at the Olney Theatre refreshment stand.

The play, he complained, was such a rehash of old prejudices! Once again, the medical profession had been portrayed as a bunch of condescending, unfeeling incompetents who wouldn't know epilepsy from impetigo, or bursitis from brain fever. "Keep her well sedated, and you'll hardly know she's there." That's what a doctor in the play had said to a woman with a spastic, retarded daughter. And the play-wright was an Englishman, too! So he had not only had a lifetime of medical attention, but he had had it free.

Where is gratitude?

The doctor, it has to be said, was not a popular member of the audience. He carried a beeper with him, as doctors will, and it beeped repeatedly during the performance, drawing indignant stares from all sides. (A patient was having labor pains, he explained at intermission. She had gone off to Ocean City against his instructions. Now she wanted advice. He had advised her to get to the nearest hospital. She had said she would be back in Washington Friday -- and wouldn't that be soon enough? There's a typical patient for you!)

I asked the doctor if these medical maters might have blinded him to the play's higher qualities, and he agreed it was possible But now that the second act is over and the play is history, I see that "Joe Egg" has no higher qualities to blind to. This is a play that treats doctors and, indeed, all humanity one-dimensionally. Only the husband -- the character based on playwright Peter Nichols himself -- is allowed the dignity of a complex personality. His fellow characters aren't whole people but mere factors in his life. Each could be described with an adjective or two; his wife, devoted and generous; his mother, wistful and dimwitted; the old school chum, philosophical and interfering; his wife, snotty and self-obsessed; the vicar, effeminate and patronizing; and, well, you've heard about the doctor.

Written in 1967, "Joe Egg" led the way for all the English and American plays of the east decade that have dealt with illinesses, handicaps and the people affected by them. The story, about a couple whose lives are anchored forever to their misfit daughter, is traumatic and powerful. Like "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" -- the latest of its thematic progeny -- "Joe Egg" has the ability to provoke argument, which is something unusual and commendable in today's theater.

But the simple-minded supporting characters are a tip to what is deeply wrong with the play. Nichols is an intelligent, witty and sometimes forceful writer (his hero regards God as "a sort of manic-depressive rugby footballer, and I'm the ball"), who haslooked at his subject with the eye of an aggrieved party, not the eye of an artist. That's why his protagonist has to plead his case to the audience directly, in a series of formal asides; he and Nichols are out to justify themselves, to expose their sense of injury to the world -- and that's no excuse for a play, for all its crudity. Joyce plays the protagonist/victim with a hearty intensity that seems honest even when his words are not.

Jill P. Rose is sure and convincing as his wife, too. And if the rest of the cast tends toward the superficial, they are only doing justice to their characters.