By Neil Simon
Directed by Josh Anderson
Produced by Organic Theater Company
At Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago
A Faithful Production for a Horrible Play
In addition to his better-known plays, Chekhov wrote over 200 short stories, most of them before his plays and many of them when he was a young man in his twenties. In The Good Doctor, Neil Simon, the popular Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Odd Couple and Lost in Yonkers, takes nine of Chekhov’s short stories and weaves them into a series of short “plays.” Explicitly advertised as a “laugh-out-loud evening of infectious humor, touching tenderness and unending fun,” I can understand why Organic Theater Company chose to offer this shameless comedy to balance out its more sober offering Out of the Blue that is currently playing in repertory with it. And I believe Josh Anderson directs The Good Doctor to its fullest potential, mining every comedic moment while keeping the pace as best as one can for a two-hour long production.
Nevertheless, for me — who holds in contempt trivialized content and hyperbolic comedic acting for its vacuity and falsity — The Good Doctor was nothing short of physical and mental torture. A tedious two hours of exaggerated nonsense, Simon’s The Good Doctor ached my body with its endless length and bludgeoned my senses dull with its pure, meaningless entertainment. I imagine some will indeed find this show entertaining (many in the audience did), but, for me, it was one of my many dark nights of the soul for theatre.
The Good Doctor begins with a kind of dumb show that shows a man (Bryan James Wakefield) directing his band of actors in a series of brief, comical “scenes” (also from Chekhov’s writing), each of which he quickly dissolves, evidently displeased with his work. This man is The Writer, ostensibly a representation of Chekhov himself. Following the dumb show, The Writer addresses us, welcoming us to his workshop and describing his feverish need to write write write (a la Trigorin — there are probably more references here than I am aware of). He then invites us to view some of his stories.
There are nine little stories, all of them comedic, some of them dipping into melodrama, and still a few that reach toward the poignant. We have the civil servant (Will Burdin) who accidentally sneezes on the back of his supervisor’s head (Jim Heatherly) and then proceeds to neurotically hound him with apologies; the simple-minded and good-natured governess (Sara Copeland) who permits her mistress (Laura Sturm) to cheat her out of her wages; the rube dentist (Bryan James Wakefield) who attempts to remove his patient’s tooth (Jim Heatherly) with a pair of pliers; the old widow (Laura Sterm) and widower (Jim Heatherly) who lament their old-age loneliness in comically sentimental song; the “greatest seducer of other men’s wives” (Bryan James Wakefield) who attempts to instruct us on how to do so until the sincerity of his latest “target” (Sara Copeland) compels him to change his ways; the sailor (Jim Heatherly) who makes an art out of drowning for three roubles; the fledgling actress Nina (Sara Copeland) who auditions with an excerpt from the end of The Three Sisters; the “defenseless” woman (Laura Sturm) who badgers a bank director (Jim Heatherly) for a sum of money until he finally relents to her irrationality and pays her; and, last and best among them, we have the father (Bryan James Wakefield) who takes his son (Will Burden) to a prostitute in order to make him a man.
As I wrote above, Anderson delivers a fine production of Simon’s play: all the actors embrace their roles with overwhelming enthusiasm and perform well in the given style; the pace is kept (as best as humanly possible) with quick scene changes; the costume design by Jeremy W. Floyd and Alyson McCandless and the properties design by David Doherty appear authentic to the 19th century period; and even the lighting design by Ryan Breneisen and Graham Whipple contributes to the storytelling by helping to distinguish between settings. In short, all aspects of production were carried out very well — for The Good Doctor.
And yet — I myself took no pleasure in any of them. . I shudder to imagine Chekhov, one of the fathers of modern theatre, tipping open his coffin lid to watch this production, beaming with pride at its hyperbolic performances. Better that he turn over in his grave and rub out its obscenity with the soil of the earth and forget Simon ever conspired with the idea. Which is just what I’ve already begun to do.
Reviewed on 5 June 2016.
Playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. For tickets and information, call the Greenhouse box office at 773-404-7336. Performances are Wednesdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays/Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through July 8th. (Note: plays in repertory with Out of the Blue. Running time is two hours with one intermission.