Theater Review: The Good Doctor at 2nd Story Theatre
Monday, March 21, 2011
In a sense, The Good Doctor, a Neil Simon comedy based on Chekhov's work, suffers its own Chekhovian fate.
Here's the thing. This play, which opens this week at 2nd Story Theatre, is not nearly as funny as it promises to be ("hilarious" and "laugh-out-loud" dot the promotional materials). This lighthearted (and lightweight) Neil Simon play is neither, unfortunately, and to bill it as such is overselling a work that can't possibly live up to that promise, especially nearly 40 years after it first appeared on Broadway.
The official story might be that Simon was inspired by Chekhov, but the resulting play has more of a dashed-off quality. It pales not only in comparison to the Russian's 19th century masterpieces (understandably), but also to much of Simon's other work. The opening, for instance, has Chekhov (John Michael Richardson) musing on writing and scratching in his notebook. Suddenly, a character appears! This kind of opening wasn't an original one in 1973, when the play first appeared; Ionesco and Flann O'Brien had done similar things earlier and to better effect in their respective works.
Now, 40 years on, it's a stale chestnut. Further, the writing itself dangles impotently between respect for the master of sharp, quietly-observed 19th-century Russians, and the best instincts of the creator of broad, sharp-tongued 20th-century New Yorkers.
Expert direction, inspired blocking
No matter how much expert direction infuses this play (and it does, as usual, under the tight and assured reins of Ed Shea and Pat Hegnauer), the center remains as bland as an egg cream. The cast of 22, sprawled across 10 scenes that are largely riffs on Chekhov short stories, does its best with Shea and Hegnauer's inspired blocking (the best work around) and precise physicality. Some of it is even virtuoso, such as a wrestling match between a Matthew Broderick-like dentist-in-training (Andrew Iacovelli), and a terrified sexton (Nick Thibeault) with a throbbing tooth that has to come out.
There are also, with the beautiful detail so typical of Shea's own acting work, some genuinely resonant character turns. Jeff Church steals the show as a candidly unctuous seducer with long, languid poses. And F. William Oakes puts in a gorgeous bit as tramp set loose from Beckett who tries to sell Chekhov a ticket to his own drowning, in the best piece of the night.
And what to make of our narrator, the charmingly lithe John Michael Richardson? His elegant poise (and rich costuming by Ron Cesario) make him lovely to watch, but too effete. Further, Richardson's own southern accent made this writer more Tennessee Williams than Anton Chekhov. It's confusing.
Why bring this play back, then? Perhaps, as Chekhov himself might have observed, to reach for something - in this case, the belly laugh brought on by human foible - may be enough. Or in this case, as Shea pointed out during his curtain speech, perhaps it's enough to seek lighthearted refuge from a world that grows more dangerous, literally, by the day. Given that Simon penned the work during a world at war in Vietnam and Cambodia, this may be closer to the truth than grandiose promises of hilarity. And if so, fair play to that.
The Good Doctor at 2nd Story Theatre, through April 10, 28 Market St, Warren, 247-4200.
Photos: Richard W. Dionne Jr.
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