Sunday, October 6, 2013

THE GOOD DOCTOR • New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre transports us to 19th century Russia during the course of its season opener, "The Good Doctor".  Five actors play multiple roles across eight vignettes based on the stories of Anton Chekhov, considered to be one of the most prolific writers of short stories in history, through the comedic lens of the show's playwright, Neil Simon, whose style explores relationships, conflict and the "funny/sad" of life with his trademark one-liners and wisecracking humor.

David Wassilak, our narrator and stand-in for Chekhov himself (bearing quite a resemblance), welcomes the audience and ponders his writing.  Lamenting his assumption that his works are doomed to pale in comparison to the writings of his colleagues, the characters from his stories appear onstage and he guides us through a selection of them.  "The Sneeze" starts things off, with a low-level government worker and his wife (Aaron Orion Baker and Alina Volobuyeva) on a rare night out at the theatre, seated right behind his heavily medaled superior and his wife (Jason Grubbe and Teresa Doggett).  After an ill-aimed sneeze that splatters his boss, the clerk cannot possibly apologize enough.  Baker is very funny to watch as his hysterical paranoia about the consequences of his social blunder lead him to make a bad situation worse.

"The Sneeze"
Front: Jason Grubbe, Teresa Dogget
Back: Alina Volobuyeva and Aaron Orion Baker.
Photo credit: John Lamb
"Surgery" finds a priest (Grubbe) with a debilitating toothache in the hands of an unlicensed dentist (Baker).  Grubbe's physical comedy sells this piece as he whimpers, convulses in the dentist chair and tries to escape the dentist-to-be who's determined to finish the job.  Wassilak, while amiably setting up each piece, dazzles when he steps into "The Seduction".  Here, he demonstrates the skills of a professed ladies man who manages, with Jedi-like skills, to make the husband of the woman he desires an accomplice in his seduction, without speaking to her at all.  Volobuyeva plays the object of his longing with charm, and has a very nice turn in "The Audition", where a young aspiring actress, after traveling a long distance to Moscow, impressively reads an excerpt of "Three Sisters" for the offstage playwright -- Anton Chekhov.

"The Seduction"
Alina Volobuyeva, Aaron Orion Baker
and David Wassilak.
Photo credit: John Lamb

In one of the funniest scenarios, "A Defenseless Creature", Doggett is a relentless woman demanding payment for her husband's nervous condition from a woeful banker, who is unable to get her to realize he has nothing to do with the problem.  Doggett's screeching persistence is hilarious here as she eventually wears the banker down.  Grubbe is also quite amusing as the banker, infuriated and suffering with gout -- complete with comically inflamed toes.  Additional vignettes include "The Governess", where a soft-spoken employee's wages are mercilessly discounted, "The Drowned Man", that features an "actor" willing to fake a drowning for money, and "The Arrangement", a sentimental look back at a father's attempt to secure a "special" gift for his son's 19th birthday.

While these stories as a whole provide some laughs with a touching moment here and there, the play itself, a departure from Neil Simon's usual fare, isn't his strongest work.  Luckily, the material is greatly elevated through Bobby Miller's sharp staging and tight direction, strong contributions from the creative team and a remarkably talented ensemble.  During the course of the play, each actor gets an opportunity to shine -- and they do.  Dunsi Dai's smart scenic design features distinct playing areas with different levels, an elevated platform, and a modernist backdrop painting of blue skies that nicely balances the stage.  Maureen Berry's pools of light effectively and elegantly highlight the different areas of the space and Michele Friedman Siler outfits the cast in handsome period costumes.  In addition to directing, Miller is also responsible for the sound design, that makes a wonderfully atmospheric impression in "The Drowned Man" and "The Arrangement", in particular.

Aaron Orion Baker and Jason Grubbe.
Photo credit: John Lamb
From the amusing, to the poignant, to the absurd, if there's anything that links the rather uneven stories of "The Good Doctor" together (aside from the narrator and the fact that Chekhov was a physician for a time), it's the comfort found in the inclination to chuckle at the imperfections and fragility of the human condition.  The "Doctor" will be in until the 20th.


Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Bobby Miller
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through October 20 | tickets: $35 - $39
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm & 7:30pm

Aaron Orion Baker*, Teresa Doggett, Jason Grubbe*, Alina Volobuyeva and David Wassilak.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Dunsi Dai; lighting design by Maureen Berry; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; sound design by Bobby Miller; property design by Wendy Greenwood; wig styling by Christian and Christopher Sifford; stage manager, Lee Anne Mathews.

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