|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.
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.