Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Doctoring Chekhov

Most of the cast of The Good Doctor.

The fringe scene is enduring a blow right now: the Independent Drama Society, which has offered consistently high-quality productions over the past three years, has announced they are shutting up shop. The reasons amount to the usual suspects: the twenty-something founders dream of doing other things, the administrative work is a grind, and momentum for a young company is hard to build, even with good reviews, of which IDS has had plenty (just few in the major print organs).

Which reminds me of an oft-repeated piece of local theatre lore - the tale of how a single Globe review saved the young, financially-strapped SpeakEasy Stage's production of Jeffrey, back in the 90's. The company itself has long credited that one rave with reversing what looked like a plunge into insolvency. But the Globe wouldn't go to a production like that now, so I guess we won't be seeing any more success stories like SpeakEasy's. Our mid-tier theatre scene has felt fairly static for some time, in fact, partly as a result of that paucity of press attention to aspiring troupes - and I have a hunch that ten years from now, we could be looking at exactly the same players we've got today unless something about that equation changes.

But anyway - back to IDS and their farewell production of The Good Doctor, which some might call an improbable dramatic marriage between the sensibilities of Neil Simon and Anton Chekhov. Now wait - don't laugh; or rather do laugh - that's certainly what Simons wants, but the kicker is that, at least early in his career, that's what Chekhov wanted too; The Good Doctor is drawn largely from the farcical sketches (and a few short stories) the Russian writer generated before making theatrical history with the revolutionary melodramas (or are they comedies? or tragedies?) that began with The Seagull.

So we have with The Good Doctor a curious case of overlap between two careers that's somewhat flattering to Simon - but not entirely. First produced in 1973, the project coincided with a period of tragedy and re-assessment for Broadway's most successful playwright: his wife of twenty years, Joan Baim, had just died, and Simon was groping for a deeper dimension to his work. And he wasn't entirely wrong to turn to early Chekhov for inspiration - the Russian dramatist's sketches often depend on gags as much as Plaza Suite does. The difference between the two, however, is that the dimension Simon was hoping to grow into Chekhov simply had from the start; floating in the background of his earliest, quickest skits is a level of perception that Simon would only attain in late-career successes like Lost in Yonkers. So while The Good Doctor does offer plenty of laughs - and more than a hint, here and there, of Chekhovian atmosphere - you can always perceive that its modern adaptor doesn't fully understand what he's dealing with.

Then again, perhaps Chekhov didn't appreciate the dimensions of his own work at that point, either - but it's certainly hard to miss them now. One reason to catch The Good Doctor is that it gives you a chance to be impressed yet again with just how influential Chekhov was - and in ways that might surprise you. Watching the strongest of these stories, for instance, it's hard to miss the debt that Joyce owes him for the famous "epiphanies" in Dubliners; and while some skits nod back in time to Gogol, others seem to cast a shadow all the way to Ionesco (while a few seem, Janus-like, to look both ways at once). Indeed, what's most laudable about Simon's efforts here is that he has managed to convey at least part of Chekhov's immense achievement in fiction onto the stage.

Still, the latterday comic almost can't help but "Simonize" his idol at times, and there is a little Broadway-style dumbing down of Chekhov in The Good Doctor - beginning with the opening, simplistic equation between Chekhov himself and one of his characters (Trigorin of The Seagull, from whose lines Simon constructs an opening monologue for his narrator, "The Writer"). And alas, more often than not, the actors of the Independent Drama Society are more comfortable in Simon's schticky, shallow idiom than in the unspoken depths of the  Russian master's.

This is partly because, simply put, almost all the IDS performers are young - and even more than Shakespeare, Chekhov demands of his actors an unforced maturity (even in his farces). All the folks in the large cast of The Good Doctor have talent, but most also unconsciously push their performances a bit (particularly for a space as small as the Factory Theater). This is fine in the skits that rely on slapstick (such as the dental nightmare "Surgery"), but alas, while you feel the laughs being punched up appropriately in such scenes - director Christine Toohey certainly understands how these sketches are structured - you don't feel a high level of physical finish to the pratfalls at hand.

Still, the show is always likeable, and the performers do nail many of their laughs (if with a heavy hand); we just don't feel the underlying emotional and thematic structures playing out beneath Simon's superficial effects. In "The Sneeze," for instance, the terrible inevitability of Chekhov's portrait of neurotic self-destruction never comes through (despite some impressively twitchy hijinks from Brian Tuttle) - just as in "The Governess," the actual class dynamics being mercilessly anatomized are a bit beyond the attractive performers.

More effective were the savage "The Drowned Man," in which Chekhov anticipates the coldness of the theatre of the absurd (and in which a calmer Brian Tuttle is quite a bit better), and particularly the exquisite "The Seduction," which probably ranks among the master's most rueful analyses of romance. Here Sarah Gazdowicz (at left) underplays her role beautifully as the undeceived target of a serial seducer, and as her smug pursuer Zach Eisenstadt almost matches her in confidence - only faltering at the piece's piercing, bittersweet conclusion. Meanwhile, as "the good doctor" himself, Bob Mussett likewise projects a welcome low-key command - but again, only rarely suggests the quirky weaknesses floating just beneath that confident social surface.

Still, even with all that said, I was glad to get acquainted (or re-acquainted) with this material, even in versions which were smart but a little naive. Few local fringe troupes could assemble a cast this large, and probably even fewer would attempt Chekhov - even by way of Simon. The scene will miss the Independent Drama Society - and I will, too.


  1. Ah, the good old days, when a Globe review could bump up the house considerably.

    When I was producing on the fringe (1999-2005) I saw the slow decline of this effect. A good Globe review we got in 1999 rang the phone off the hook for out tickets. In 2003 or so, it increased the the last week's ticket sales considerably, but not as drastically as when we started.

    These days, I'm not producing, so I don't have a handle on the effect as much. I know from my anecdotal observations that I've sat in near empty theaters the Friday night after a pretty darned good review in Globe.

    You are right it is becoming harder and harder to even get coverage at all now.

    An interesting coincidence is that you mention Brian Tuttle in this post. He just recently retired his 11:11 Theater Company after a bunch of years. That company was an early home of many of Boston's talented fringe actors: (Greg Maraio and Eliza Lay, just to mention a few.)

  2. Hi Art - Yes, I've heard that even the Globe can't pull in an audience any more - which I suppose undercuts my thesis in that paragraph (nobody could save a new SpeakEasy Stage these days!) but also leads to some interesting questions, along the lines of, "How exactly DO people decide what they're going to see?" and the even deeper question "Why don't people want to see good shows and movies anymore?" I've been struck for some time that popularity and quality in popular entertainment are now no longer connected. In the old days, you could generally count on a smart, clever movie finding an audience; it might not be a smash, but it would prove a small hit; now you can't count on that anymore, so there's really no reason to bother making a good movie anymore, is there - other than for the intriguing "peripheral" opinion market. We hate to fully admit to ourselves that not only are we no longer "mono-cultural," we're actually "post-cultural." So we maintain a kind of "virtual" cultural agora - there are still award shows, etc. (in fact there are more award shows than ever!), which together conspire to create the illusion that artistic quality still matters to the audience. But really it only matters to the creators!

  3. I'm not really sure how people make choices, but I know that many cultural/entertainment entities spend a lot of money trying to figure that out.

    I had a few friends, who aren't regular theatergoers, mention that they went to see Matt and Ben at the Central Square theater. I asked how they heard about it. The answer, almost to a person, was that their friends had seen the pre-show piece in the Globe and it sounded really funny.

    I think well-placed, pre-show pieces still get traction with audiences, right?

    Of course, these particular tickets were sold without any question as to whether or not it was a good show. The whole concept of the show just sounds like a fun time.

    What I have talked about on my blog before is the idea that as theater websites get more dynamic, they have started to become their own pre-show publicity outlets.

    As far as the larger popular culture:

    There was a recent panel about the future of independent film distribution.

    At that panel the producer of Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies spoke, saying that the film grossed 14M or so in 1996. As a comparison, Winter's Bone, an small Oscar contender last year, grossed 6M or so.

    However, Woody Allen's latest, (I haven't seen it, but people do say it is his smartest and cleverest in a number of years,) seems to quietly be approaching the 50M mark, and Terrence Malick already has investors for his next project! Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still in theaters after a few months.

    You and I probably differ on the overall quality of some of these projects, but I hope you'll agree that they represent creative teams that are at least trying to make a good movie.

    The numbers that are still tough to come by are the on-demand viewings, which cable providers and on-line distributors are holding very close to the vest.

    For instance: Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop only grossed about 3M in theaters, but I probably know a good 20 people myself who watched it on Netflix without having seen it at the movies. That's anecdotal, but it would be interesting to see the real numbers.

    Maybe things aren't so bad?

  4. Movies are largely immune from this post-cultural shift. Producers figured out years ago that movies don't have to draw huge audiences on initial release to be profitable; they can recoup it months or years later via home video, TV rights, Hulu, Netflix, etc. Which is fine, except if you run an indy movie house... or if you value shared cultural experiences.

    Woe to the makers of smart, clever theatre, on the other hand, if they don't draw an audience in a finite two or three week stretch of time. Theatre has to rely on publicity and press because that's our only shot. We have no 'virtual' option, nor can we recoup our expenses years later.