“The Good Doctor”

photo courtesy of Steve Krieckhaus

Play: “The Good Doctor”

Group: Avalon Theatre Company

Venue: ArtSpace at Crestwood Court, Watson at Sappington

Dates: November 18, 19, 20, 21

Tickets: $20-$30; contact 314-351-6482 or www.avalontheatre.org

Story: A genteel physician in 19th century Russia regales his audience and himself with a series of tales about life in his homeland. We’re introduced to an oafish civil servant frantically trying to impress a bureaucrat; a meek and obedient governess meeting with her stern employer on payday; a hapless sexton with an abscessed tooth being tortured by a novice dentist; two timid and elderly people sharing a park bench; and a dapper rogue giving pointers on how to seduce married women.

We also see a man who provides ‘drowning’ entertainment for a living; an actress from Odessa auditioning for a role in a play in Moscow; a woman feigning weakness while demanding recompense from a bank for her husband; and a man taking his shy son to a house of ill repute for his introduction to worldly pleasures. All of these skits are introduced by our host, the genial title character.

Highlights: Neil Simon had indifferent success with this 1973 effort that pays homage to 19th century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Like Chekhov, the narrator is a physician with a passion for writing, and Simon writes in the style of Chekhov in telling a dozen or so stories. They are gentle, elegant works that nonetheless carry Simon’s distinctive touch with comedy that displays itself in measured moments of amusement in contrast to his more familiar shotgun style.

Director Jim Anthony does a fine job maintaining the low-key mood of the evening, an affectionate salute by a modern master of playwriting to one of the titans of the craft. Anthony’s quintet of performers are equal to the task, displaying their own comic talents within the parameters of the setting (apart from one bizarre use of Cockney and Irish accents by the entertainer and constable, respectively, in the ‘Drowning’ bit).

Other Info: The scenic design by Igor Karash creates a suitably simple backdrop for the skits to match the mood of a stark Russian setting, with complementary lighting by Michael Bergfeld. Soon V. Martin provides a range of wigs, particularly some garish ones for Dean Christopher, and her costumes are appropriate for the era and locale. Anthony and Larry Mabrey provide the light touch on sound design that matches Simon’s whimsical flair.

Mabrey is an affable and courteous host as the writer, introducing the various tales with an agreeable manner that sets the airy mood. He also shows his own comedic skills as the inept dentist, the suave seducer and a pedestrian whose evening stroll is interrupted by a quirky street entertainer, effectively playing the straight man or the foil, depending on the situation.

Likewise, Christopher is adept in various roles. He’s especially sweet in a poignant bit as an elderly man who searches for the courage to invite an attractive older lady to tea. He and Judi Mann are affecting singing the winsome ballad by Peter Link that shapes the melancholy piece. He’s also hilarious as the Cockney street performer who makes a living by jumping into a river and drowning before being saved by an accomplice in the show’s wackiest and most enjoyable moment. He has good fun as the beleaguered banker but is a bit too stiff as the bureaucrat unfortunately sneezed upon by an anxious underling.

Mann shows her comic chops as a woman whose browbeating of the banker is in stark contrast to her protestations of being defenseless in the business world. She also is convincing as an upper-class matron who berates her dutiful but expressionless governess (Theresa Hermann) as she goes about whittling down the teacher’s rightful salary before offering a cautionary bromide. Hermann nicely complements Mann’s bullying character by keeping within the governess’ narrow demeanor in the evening’s most surprising piece.

Hermann also shows delightful skill as a wife whose curiosity and vanity are piqued by the deviously flattering behavior of her thick-witted husband’s friend. She’s properly supportive as the civil servant’s wife, as well as portraying a negotiating prostitute and a hopeful lass who walks from Odessa to Moscow to audition for a part in a big-city production. And Austin Pierce shows good comic range in a number of roles, including an oafish civil servant who blows his sneeze upon his boss completely out of proportion, the naïve husband who opens the door to his wife’s seduction and a young banker intimidated by Mann’s rampage.

While not the knee-slapping dialogue for which Simon is more commonly known, Avalon Theatre Company’s production of “The Good Doctor” is a welcome offering for the ever-lengthening holiday season.

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

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