Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2008
Once I went to a ridiculously trendy restaurant and saw on the menu an exotic dish made with all the foods I like best in the world. I ordered it and discovered that when you put all the foods I like best in the world into one dish, it tastes terrible. What I loved, and still love, individually, I hated in combination.
The same applies to The Good Doctor, an unholy marriage of the considerable talents of Neil Simon (1927- ) and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) currently being presented by the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall (TCHH). The two men never coexisted on this planet, so the idea, and the fault, lies entirely with Simon, who is credited as playwright here.
I do not fault Simon for loving Chekhov, or for finding his work funny. If Simon, who has a Broadway theatre named after him for Lord’s sake, wanted to throw his considerable resources into producing Chekhov’s work, I would be the first in line to buy tickets. But to try to combine his work with Chekhov’s is an unpardonable sin.
Chekhov and Simon have a lot in common, most notably that they both were/are compulsive writers. The title plays on another similarity the two writers share – Chekhov was a doctor, and Simon is called Doc. Simon has frequently been called in as a “Show Doctor” to save ailing scripts. While Simon casts his narrator here as an obsessed writer, seemingly of Chekhov’s place and period (late 19th century Russian), the character is NOT a doctor. Just which “Good Doctor” are we celebrating here?
Simon takes his material from Chekhov’s short stories, not his plays, and even the Good Show Doctor cannot translate the pieces successfully from prose to drama. You feel as if you are being read aloud to. And Simon crams in ten, count ‘em, ten, short stories where six or seven would have easily sufficed.
There is a rhythm to Simon’s punch lines which resonate with 20th and 21st century Americans because they are born of his early years writing for television. Simon writes in the rhythm and idiom of the sitcom and sketch comedy (he penned both Sergeant Bilko and Sid Cesar’s Your Show of Shows) I doubt that Chekhov could have held a job writing for American television. The rhythms of 19th century Russian humor bear no resemblance to Simon’s, which is why modern American audiences have such a hard time finding Chekhov funny. The result is that you can instantly tell which author wrote which lines.
This is a long way of saying that The Good Doctor is a bad script, and when you have a bad script no amount of talent or money can save you. If you send Sir Laurence Olivier out on to a stage with rotten floorboards he is still going to fall through into the basement. Director Brian Foley has assembled a cast of Hubbard Hall’s finest performers – Jason Dolmetsch, Kim Johnson-Turner, Doug Ryan, Anastasia Satterthwaite, and Benjie White - and they ply their winning ways the best they can, but they can’t transform straw into gold.
This is being billed as the first TCHH production since the departure of founding artistic director Kevin McGuire, although McGuire selected the script and invited Foley to direct. All involved agree that Neil Simon is not typical TCHH fare – the company has built its reputation on productions of Shaw, Shakespeare, and, yes, Chekhov, with the occasional musical thrown in for good measure. Simon is seen as the purview of summer stock and dinner theatre, even though he is a Pulitzer Prize winner and many of his plays have serious themes.
Foley is a trained clown. Along with Matthew Duncan he travels the world performing as one half of Circus Bambouk (Duncan is Bam, Foley is Bouk). McGuire told Foley he wanted The Good Doctor directed like a Mack Sennett (1880-1960) comedy. I don’t think Chekhov would have had a very long career writing for Sennett either. So Foley brings a third style to the mix.
The Good Doctor has no through story, it is just a collection of Chekhov’s short stories loosely tied together by the ramblings of the Narrator (Brian Gillespie.) Gillespie, who has worked with Foley in the past, is making his Hubbard Hall debut. All the rest of the cast were regular TCHH performers under McGuire, but they all work well together as a team. Gillespie gets to take on a few other roles – notably that of The Great Seducer of Married Women, where he is winningly paired with Ryan as the clueless husband and the glowing Satterthwaite as the cleverer-than-she-looks wife. Alas, this entertaining but lengthy piece is placed at the end of the too-long first act.
Ryan and Gillespie team again in the second act for The Drowned Man which shows Ryan’s comedic skills to great effect and proves Gillespie an excellent straight man. Ryan is less happily paired with Dolmetsch in The Surgery, a “comedy” about dental pain and tooth extraction that I found excruciating in every way but funny.
Dolmetsch has his best moments as the sneezer in The Sneeze and as the impossibly naïve 19-year-old Chekhov in The Arrangement. In this latter piece Simon’s additions to the script were so obvious that a fellow audience member behind me leaned over and whispered to his companion “That was the Neil Simon part.”
Satterthwaite shines in The Seduction and as a feverish but determined actress who auditions by playing all Olga, Masha, and Irina in a scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Johnson-Turner has her funniest moment as the title character in A Defenseless Creature as a woman who is anything but defenseless as she torments Ryan’s gout-ridden bank clerk into writing her a check.
White is always a pleasure to see on stage, even in very small roles to which he is often relegated because his time is mostly taken up being the Executive Director of Hubbard Hall Projects. Here he gets a solid bit as the increasingly enraged sneezee in The Sneeze and in a delightful cameo as an inquisitive voyeur in The Seduction.
Now, as if there isn’t enough going on here, there are a couple of songs. This isn’t a musical – a Chekhovian musical would be a terrible thing to behold – and I am not quite sure why Too Late for Happiness and Chekhovian Depression are in there (no one is credited with writing the tunes.) The former is quite a delightful little duet on the subject of later life love, ably performed by Johnson-Turner and White, while the latter is an ensemble number that opens the second act. As its title implies, Chekhovian Depression pokes fun at the unrelentingly morose gloom which many Americans associate with Russian literature in general and Chekhov in particular. Are we celebrating Chekhov here or making fun of him? Make up your mind already.
While Chekhov did write funny stories and referred to his plays as comedies, not everything he wrote was light-hearted, and some of the stories included here, notably The Sneeze (also known as The Death of a Government Clerk) and The Governess, are downright tragic. The Drowned Man has quite a horrific ending, although it does garner a laugh, and The Arrangement is downright maudlin.
The set by Alley Morse consists of scribbled on paper everywhere. It is embedded into the floor, it paves the stairs, it climbs up the proscenium arch. The implication, both implicit and explicit in Gillespie’s opening monologue, is that this is a man who just can’t stop writing. Whether we assume that man to be Anton Chekhov or Neil Simon is immaterial, the description applies to both, but no matter how great the writer, not every word s/he writes will be worth reading or performing. The Good Doctor is lesser Chekhov adapted into lesser Neil Simon. Both these men were/are capable of so much, but you’d never guess it from this script. Next time TCHH decides to present Neil Simon, I hope they pick The Odd Couple (my personal fav) or his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lost in Yonkers.
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of The Good Doctor runs through December 7 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY, with performances on November 14, 15, 21, 22, 28, 29 and December 5 and 6 at 8 p.m., and November 16, 23, 30 and December 7 at 2 p.m. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Tickets are $20 for Hubbard Hall members, $24 for non-members and $15 for students. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008