Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Good Doctor
But you can always tell it'll be a friendly audience for that official opening night, because unusual numbers of people come up to greet the producer before each act. And once the show gets going, some dope always laughs all-too-charitably in the darkness at every little thing.
There was some of that at the opening of Neil Simon's series of short, short comedies based on the writings of Anton Chekhov. It never hurtsthe wisdom goesto "paper the house" with free tickets and friendly faces when the critics are there as well. We're as easily swayed by the mob as anyone else.
Yet I was struck (in spite of the usual friendliness before the show) by the merely tepid applause that came after each beautifully played vignette, under the fine direction of Bobby Miller, in this two hour show. Then, the next morning, I realized what probably happened: a series of short, mostly unconnected little scenes may just be antithetical to Neil Simon's style of writing.
Theatergoers expect big relationship comedy from Simon, comedy that plays out in "the long game"not the hit-and-run, ambiguous Russian format we see here, with dour twist-endings. In Simon's defense, his usual style is probably just boiled way down and crammed into each of these eight scenes but, as a result, the house really takes a pounding.
I really liked the production, but most of the rest of the audience seemed to respond as if they longed for the steady, even pacing of The Odd Couple instead. So this time, once this show got going, I was turned into the dope myself: laughing alone in the dark on press night, at every little thing, while most everyone else seemed disappointingly quiet. A typically ironic Russian twist-ending.
But I'll make no apology. David Wassilak is the stoic narrator, and also one of the funny players in the ensembleat one point he's the great seducer of other men's wives, and later a man who meets a mad denizen of the docks during a night-time stroll. Aaron Orion Baker is that madman, who throws the entire meaning of theater into question, with his own version of performance art. And in Mr. Wassilak's earlier "seduction" scene, Alina Volobuyeva is Mr. Baker's beautiful wife, who later comes back as an awe-struck girl, auditioning before Chekhov himself, which (like her other scenes) is very touching and lovely.
Mr. Baker is wonderfully funny and strange as a 19th century dentist's apprentice when the fantastic (and fantastical) Jason Grubbe comes in on the wrong day to have a tooth pulled. Mr. Grubbe, in another guise, will later take Mr. Baker (as his tremulous teenaged son) for a visit to a whorehouse where they struggle for truth and love, under the worst of artificial circumstances.
Teresa Doggett is consistently funny and whimsical and grandiloquent as a lady of the house, meticulously robbing her nanny of her rightful pay, and later bringing the very end of the world to a banker's office in a mad little scene that pits bureaucracy against the will of a desperate housewife.
It's funny, but the more I write about it, the more I fall in love with this show. Maybe you have to be a little mesmerized, and a little stage-struck yourself. Or maybe you just have to realize how much a 19th century Russian can teach you about life in 21st century America.
Through October 20, 2013, at the Jewish Community Center, just west of Lindbergh Blvd. on Schuetz Rd. (#2 Millstone Campus Drive, 63146). For more information go to www.newjewishtheatre.org or call (314) 442-3283. No shows on Fridays.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the professional association of actors and stage managers in the US.