Story: Set in Russia at the end of the 19th century, The Good Doctor consists of eight comic vignettes, four in each act, that present snapshots of life, mostly in Moscow, among people at all levels of society.
Highlights: Prolific American playwright Neil Simon adapted several short stories by prodigious Russian writer/physician Anton Chekhov in this amusing concoction, first produced on Broadway in 1973. It’s a blend of the talents of two widely respected writers from different countries and nearly a century apart.
As the opener of the New Jewish Theatre’s 2013-14 season, The Good Doctor dispenses a generous portion of laughs, even if inequitably allocated among the eight tales, thanks to the perceptive direction of NJT artistic associate Bobby Miller and his quintet of gifted players who immerse themselves in sundry characters.
Other Info: The Good Doctor is a curious concoction. Given its lineage, it’s similar to a buffet at a restaurant that offers twin cuisines rather than a singular specialty. As a result, it’s a cross between Simon’s traditional rapid-fire one-liners and Chekhov’s subtler view of the human condition.
While it’s uneven in execution, and omits one of the nine stories in the original presentation about an aged couple, Miller’s cast keeps the laughs coming for the most part, whether evoking fitful guffaws or wry smiles along the way.
David Wassilak serves convincingly as our narrator, a bespectacled and nattily attired writer who ostensibly is Chekhov himself in Simon’s interpretation. Our host wryly offers the same alternate ending to each tale as it unfolds.
Certainly most problematic of the skits is The Governess. It’s difficult to appreciate the browbeating that a timid young governess takes at the expense of the officious mother of her charges, even with the tale’s cautionary explanation. Teresa Doggett and Alina Volobuyeva (originally from Ukraine) understand their characters, but the story is an ill fit.
Most successful of the vignettes is the first act finale, The Seduction. In droll style, Wassilak describes how his character, a charming bachelor who prefers his conquests to be married women, successfully executes his plan of action with the direct involvement of the cuckolded husband.
Volobuyeva does fine work as the young wife whose passion is aroused by the bachelor’s carefully choreographed concert of deceit, while Aaron Orion Baker draws upon his deft comic abilities to depict her goofy, gullible husband. Again, the denouement owes more to Chekhov than Simon.
Act II opens with a flourish in a funny skit called The Drowned Man, in which Baker cajoles a passerby into paying to watch him “drown.” He’s insulted when the man questions his sanity, saying that he is in the “maritime entertainment business.”
There’s a manic, Monty Python approach to broad comedy at work here, with Wassilak as the dutiful ‘straight man,’ Jason Grubbe as a constable who’s seen all manner of activities on the boardwalk and Baker amping up as the outrageously aggressive clown.
Doggett is in fine fettle in A Defenseless Creature, in which she overwhelms an ailing banker (Grubbe) and his timid clerk (Baker) as a “poor, down-trodden woman” whose booming voice and twisted logic prove too much for a man shackled by reason and a bad case of the gout.
There’s also The Audition, a sweet bit in which a young woman tells the casting director for an upcoming play that she has walked four days from Odessa to Moscow for this unique shot at stardom. She then stuns him with a dazzling display of versatility, portraying each of the title roles in The Three Sisters. Wassilak is the bemused off-stage voice of the director, while Volobuyeva charms as the talkative but very talented actress.
The Sneeze, Surgery and The Arrangement all offer dollops of brevity but suffer from being amalgams of two different writers. The latter concerns a father’s (Grubbe) efforts to introduce his 19-year-old son (Baker) to ‘manhood’ at a brothel as a birthday present, while the former depicts the unfortunate escalation of events when a neurotic government clerk (Baker) sneezes on a general (Grubbe) at an opera performance.
Surgery deals with an ailing sexton’s visit to the local dentist to remove a painful tooth, only to find that the dentist is out of town and his duties are being performed by an apprentice. There’s plenty of silly slapstick here provided by Grubbe as the alarmed, gurgling patient and Baker as the nervous novice.
Miller keeps everything moving at an enjoyable pace as his players navigate their blended prose on the impressive, multi-dimensional set designed by Dunsi Dai, which production assistants change efficiently throughout the performance.
It’s an elegant opera house or a dimly lit wharf, and it’s filled with an impressive array of props furnished by Wendy Greenwood, such as a dental chair or the narrator’s stylish walking cane. Maureen Berry lights it all from the subtle (opening and closing scenes) to the overt, Michele Friedman Siler dresses the players handsomely in period attire and Miller provides a spirited sound track.
The Good Doctor is part Chekhov, part Simon and mostly entertaining in this fine rendering by the New Jewish Theatre.
Play: The Good Doctor
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: October 9, 10, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19, 20
Tickets: $35-$39; contact 442-3257, 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb