New Jewish Theatre opens their 17th season with Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor. More of a sketch comedy piece than a true play, the small vignettes of Anton Chekov’s short stories, represent slices of Russian life at the turn of the last century and are quilted together by a narrator, a writer who is auditioning some of his characters for us. David Wassilak plays the narrator and involves himself in several of the stories (either as the narrator character or as a specific character, it’s a bit unclear.)
Wassilak’s character reminded me of Trigorin from Chekov’s The Seagull, wanting his own work to be loved, but knowing he will always fail in comparison to Turgenev and Tolstoy, because he is, after all, a writer of the small stories of life. Many of the characters are parodies of Chekov’s characters and the stories follow Chekov’s edict of “lengthy conversations, little action.” The humor is very gentle, the stories are rough drafts of what may become a lengthier piece, and it falls to the actors to keep us engaged. Under the skillful direction of Bobby Miller, they do a fine job.
Wassilak fumbled a bit on opening night with the first monologue but by the time he comes back for “The Seduction” he was in fine form. He is at his best with Aaron Orion Baker in “The Drowned Man” where Baker offers to entertain him with a “drowning” for a mere three rubles. Baker is wonderful in all his scenes, with an energy that ricochets him about the stage and spits the words from his mouth. When he first appeared I thought, “His hair! It’s so Russian!” (You’ll understand when you see it.) Baker’s best scene is “Surgery” with Jason Grubbe, a slapstick scene of dental delirium.
Finally, Alina Volobuyeva played all the “lovely young girl” roles. She was lovely indeed but I felt her character's wandered a bit both vocally and in specificity with the exception of “The Audition” in which she does a beautiful turn at “The Three Sisters.” Incidentally, Volobuyeva is from the Ukraine and I thought her accent the least pronounced. I always am curious about when a director decides to use accents for a play, some British shows demand it for flow and vocabulary, actors always want to flaunt their accent chops, but a director once said to me during The Seagull, “you are all Russian, you wouldn’t have an accent in Russia.” I like the use of the accents for this play, it adds formality to the words and punches the juxtaposition of formal language to Simon’s more modern wise-cracks.
Dunsi Dai’s set is appropriately sparse which allows the easy flow from one scene to another, Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are exquisite. I found Maureen Berry’s lights too dim, perhaps apt for bleak Russia, but I found Wassilak, in particular, hard to see when he had lines between scenes. While I found most of the props suitable I was unhappy with the modernity of the wine glasses, especially next to a lovely cut-glass decanter, and the very modern padfolio on the banker’s desk, complete with a loop for a pen. I try not to be taken out of a play for a prop or costume misstep, but I found my eyes returning again and again to those damn wine glasses.
The Good Doctor promises “laugh out loud droll humor,” but delivers a more gentle guffaw. The ensemble of actors, however, are talented and director Miller gets the best production of this script that one could hope. The Good Doctor continues at the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theatre on the Millstone Campus of the Jewish Community Center through October 20th.