The best medicine, they say, springs from a good working relationship between doctor and patient. The Good Doctor turns out to be an unexpected theatrical tonic—an inexplicably healthy collaboration between a script doctor with a penchant for the laughing gas and a fatalistic patient with an essential aversion to the idea that there’s any relief from the intricate lattices of everyday pain.
Mainstream humor-monger Neil Simon drew his episodic, evening-length collection of stories from the short fiction of the rarefied literary tragedian Anton Chekhov, and The Good Doctor’s offbeat admixture of broad comedy and bittersweet reflection is about what you’d expect from the unlikely pairing. It’s Chekhov, sort of, but without the ironic reserve; most of that dry, distanced quality has been borscht-belted, Broadway-ized, brushed aside. But if Simon flattens and tightens things, this adventurous, imaginative production—a joint venture of Theater J and the Stanislavsky Theater Studio—manages to reinflate them, fleshing out with vaguely surreal sound, lights, and motion what the emphatically earthbound script may have left too bare. The result is a theatrical exercise that, for all its mildly disjointed qualities, manages to be dreamily effective.
As striking for its vivid stage pictures as for any single performance—though several of its performances are lovely—this is a collaboration that works best when its strongest elements are working together. John Benoit’s Chekhov, in thrall to the creative demands of imagination, tormented by the towering literary shadows of Turgenev and Tolstoy, is an impersonation achieved with wry humor and a relaxed, charismatic authority in Simon’s framing device; still, it’s when he slips through the fourth wall to join the Stanislavsky players within the stories he’s been narrating (or when, on occasion, they come crashing out to collar him) that the evening comes most to life.
And it’s the Stanislavsky ensemble’s great strengths—the elegantly moody choreography of Irina Tsikurishvili; the directorial flair of her husband, Paata Tsikurishvili, and the troupe’s artistic director, Andrei Malaev-Babel—that conspire to restore the original resonance (and then some) of the Chekhov stories: An ambitious but thickheaded bureaucrat (comically neurotic Armand Sindoni) finds humiliation, rather than a hoped-for advancement, in a theatrical encounter with a powerful apparatchik (angular, amusing Jonathan Leveck); the amorous exploits of a famous seducer (Benoit) conclude when he himself is cornered by one of his targets; a seemingly greedy matron (a deliciously pinched Catherine Gasta) and her two brats offer a harsh lesson in the dynamics of power to a timid governess (sad, ethereally beautiful Rachel Jett, who turns in a paradoxically hard-edged performance as a prostitute in a later vignette), and the tragedy is that the younger woman can’t bring herself to learn from the experience.
Simon’s script emphasizes the ridiculous—a messy sneeze, a churl’s pugnaciousness—in each of these excursions, but the mimed posturings of the ensemble surrounding the principal actors ensure a heightened silent-movie expression of the outrage and despair hidden just below the brittle surface. A mildly dissonant score (drawn from Shostakovich, Schnittke, and the like) and the Stanislavsky company’s signature choreographic vocabulary—alternately graceful and threateningly contorted—lend a dark, suggestive air even to episodes—a cleric’s dental misadventure, for instance—that might seem purely comic on the page.
Even “The Romance and the Double Bass”—an extended fish tale rendered entirely in mime by the Tsikurishvilis, involving a hapless musician, a willful bathing beauty, and the happenstance that leaves them unclothed in each other’s company—manages to command interest for the performers’ confidence and sly humor, though it will probably begin to wear on most patrons before the second of its two parts has concluded. Certainly, the largely teenage crowd (imported through some sort of educational outreach) that packed the auditorium last Saturday was having trouble staying focused, even if the performers never seemed to lose them entirely.
If there’s something missing from The Good Doctor’s bag, it’s a sense of shape, a dramatic through-line to connect the stories, which instead are unified only by a general mood, a sense that every facet of life leaves something to be desired. It’s a meditation, a set of variations, more than it is a narrative—but when a meditation is rendered with this kind of sophistication, an absence of plot unity is hardly worth complaining about. What you get here, in lieu of a neatly stitched sense of closure, is powerful theatrical voodoo—and that’s always the best kind of medicine. CP