The Good Doctor
The Good Doctor was a departure for Neil Simon when it premiered on Broadway in 1973. After a dozen years of serving up gag-a-minute comedies, The Good Doctor was something else altogether: a series of sketches adapted from Anton Chekhov short stories. No Plaza suites or Second Avenue apartments here; we're in 19th century Russia, and the opening scene is set in a cabin where a writer (a stand-in for Chekhov) scribbles away in obscurity. Simon stretched his talents in The Good Doctor, and at time he stretches too far; it's an experiment that doesn't completely work. Still, its best moments are sweet and funny, and Hedgerow Theatre's new production delivers lots of smiles.
In creating The Good Doctor (whose title was partly inspired by the fact that Chekhov was a physician), Simon allowed himself to explore everything from broad comedy to poignant character studies. But it's the comedy that works best, especially the more outlandish segments. These include "The Sneeze," about an obsequious civil servant wracked by anxiety after he sneezes on his superior; "Surgery," in which a dental appointment devolves into a wrestling match; and "A Defenseless Creature," about an overbearing customer who makes a bank manager's life miserable. But not all the comedy scenes work; some seem stagnant. And the more serious scenes seem trifling; they're not especially dramatic, and they go by too quickly to allow the audience to get involved in the characters' lives.
Director Louis Lippa handles the comedy scenes well, but the more serious scenes need a stronger hand. The sentimental "Too Late for Happiness" is static and sluggish. "The Audition" features a nice turn by Rebecca Cureton as an eager-to-please actress who plays all three of Chekhov's "Three Sisters," but Lippa dilutes the power of her monologues by having Cureton turn away from the audience between the speeches. Instead of having the actress inhabit the roles, the move distances her from the audience, reminding us that she is, after all, an actress. It adds an air of artificiality to what could have been a more powerful scene.
By and large, though, The Good Doctor maintains a lighthearted mood. And it's helped by a gifted cast of farceurs. Jared Reed is cheerful as the writer, and adds a sly touch to his portrayal of a serial seducer. Shaun Yates, with wide eyes and wild hair that make him resemble Larry Fine, adds just the right air of frantic unease to the role of the sneezer. Susan Wefel hams it up with gusto as that not-so-defenseless creature, and Zoran Kovcic is excellent as the beleaguered banker she drives to the brink of madness.
The Good Doctor is an uneven play. The dramatic scenes don't dig deep enough, and too many of the comedy scenes get laughs from silliness rather than insights into the characters. But some of the scenes are raucously funny, and the overall mood is of a charming evening spent hearing some fine stories from two master storytellers.
The Good Doctor runs through September 18, 2011 at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices are $22 to $29, with discounts for seniors and children, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211, online at www.hedgerowtheatre.org or in person at the box office.
The Good Doctor