The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robert Faires, November 19, 1999, Arts

The Good Doctor: Chekhovian Longing

The State Theater,

through November 21

Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

Anton Chekhov and Neil Simon. Not exactly a pairing that immediately strikes one as inspired. After all, one is a 19th-century Russian who laid bare humanity's deepest yearnings and foibles in poignant dramatic plays, while the other is a 20th-century American who exposed the follies and neuroses of modern urban life in tightly crafted, one-liner-littered comedic plays. Joined together, they seem less like natural peers in world theatre and more like the hapless heroes in a Simon masterwork: The Odd Couple.

And yet the two share a bond from when they were young writers: comedic sketches. When he was in his 20s, Chekhov devoted much of his literary energies to penning short humorous work, in the form of stories, sketches, and one-act farces for the stage. Simon also spent his 20s writing short comedic pieces, his in the form of TV sketches for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows and episodes for a Phil Silvers sitcom. Given that, it was not so odd for Simon to write The Good Doctor, a work of sketches based on the early comic work of Chekhov.

Simon's efforts, first staged in 1973, strive to be true to the spirit of the originals while flavoring them with his own trademark hilarity. What results isn't always the sweet taste one enjoys from each author separately, but a hybrid flavor that is sometimes tangy and sometimes flat.

The mixed outcome is evident -- sometimes painfully so -- in the current version by the State Theater Company. The production features a cast of able comedians, each of whom has proven in the past how handily she or he can coax laughter from an audience. And watching, say, David Stokey offhandedly proclaim his nonexistent expertise in dental surgery to a profoundly skeptical -- but also profoundly miserable -- Dirk van Allen is to be reminded of how naturally comedy comes to these two artists and how funny they can be. But then to see van Allen, who is not a singer, forced to soldier through a December-romance duet with Sandy Walper (who is in fine voice and charmingly wistful here), or to see Stokey strain for comic effect in a delicate piece such as "The Sneeze," is to be reminded that even gifted artists can be saddled with the wrong material.

Perhaps director Michael Hankin hasn't a natural feel for Chekhov. Or Simon. Or both. Given that some parts of the show work and some don't, that the performers are sometimes in command of the material and sometimes not, it's difficult to say. What isn't difficult to say is that The Good Doctor boasts some genuine pleasures: James Barker's simple set pieces that establish mood and place with as little as a floating window or a pair of dockside columns; Boni Hester's conscience-stricken bride in "The Seduction," drawn to a conniving Don Juan but aware of what she'll lose if she gives in to him; and State artistic director Don Toner making his return to performing after nine years. As The Writer, the show's stand-in for Chekhov, Toner doesn't always look confortable, but when he does, there is a sparkle in his eye and the smile of a scamp on his lips that is a treat to see.

As for the source of the show's woes -- they may go back to the authors after all. Not because they aren't kindred spirits but because Simon wrote this tribute to the young Chekhov when he himself was middle-aged. In "The Drowned Man," a bizarrely funny piece in which simulated drowning is its own artform, Simon creates something akin to an old Your Show of Shows sketch. Listening to Stokey and Toner trade outrageous lines, one can imagine Caesar and Carl Reiner working their comic mischief on the scene. But the piece, while amusing, has an elegiac undertow, as if a fortysomething Simon is trying to recapture the glory of his younger, looser, wilder days. That ghostly sense of longing for the past makes the evening more Chekhovian, but not, I think, in the way Simon intended.

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