My favorite among them, “The Drowned Man” is about a tramp who hits up passersby on the docks for money to watch him pretend to drown. It has an old-fashioned rim shot ending; others are more subtle.
A troupe of five energetic actors play all the characters in the season opener for the New Jewish Theatre. David Wassilak is Anton Chekhov’s doppelgänger, the “doctor” referenced in the title but billed here as simply “The Writer.” The play could legitimately be called “The Two Good Doctors,” because while Chekhov practiced medicine, Simon has long carried the nickname “Doc” for his facility at script doctoring. Here, however, our one doctor is the narrator and our guide to his stories, introducing them and providing transitions. He even appears in a couple of them. Wassilak has a fine, dry delivery that suits the part perfectly. He provides structure and clarity and is the glue that holds these disparate pieces, all dramatized from Chekhov’s short stories, into a coherent whole.
The players are Aaron Orion Baker, Jason Grubbe, Teresa Doggett, and Alina Volobuyeva. Each has at least one chance to shine, although I think Doggett, one of the best comic actors we have, gets the short end of the stick in that her two “star turns” are in the sketches I find the least funny. But you may not feel that way. From the laughter I heard among the audience, she killed in “A Defenseless Creature” in which she drives Grubbe’s gout-afflicted banker to distraction. To me, the players are funnier than the material in this bit deserves.
Fortunately, masterful direction by Bobby Miller gets us past the rough spots fast, and while he says the evening is short, it isn’t—we were there about 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission—but it does move quickly. So, if you don’t like one, another will be along shortly. One production detail that helps it feel as if the pace is lively is the obvious rehearsal of the stagehands. They make changes almost imperceptibly right in front of us, and many locations are represented. A bedroom becomes a dentist’s office; a desk functions as “The Writer’s” workspace and the bank. A table and two chairs downstage right are used for a number of scenes, and a second level provides the dock and still another playing space. The ingenious design, execution, and gorgeous painterly light plot are by Dunsai Dai and Maureen Berry.
Baker has the most to do. He appears in six of the eight pieces, and he is excellent. Grubbe is a treasure. He showed up in Rolla a couple of years ago at Ozark Actor’s Theatre and has been around in a couple of St. Louis Actor’s Studio plays, and now this one. Can we keep him? He and Doggett are the older characters; Baker and Volobuyeva, a graduate student in theatre at Washington University who is new to me, play the younger ones. Volobuyeva who, ironically, has the least broad Slavic accent of all of them (she grew up in Ukraine) seems a bit overwhelmed by these energetic veterans, but she gets her chance to shine in “The Audition” in which a young woman with a cold walked four days from Odessa to Moscow to audition for “The Three Sisters.” All of them. She was a joy to watch as Masha. And Irina. And Olga.
The actors are lavishly dressed by Craig Jones, and they have a lot of business with Wendy Greenwood’s props, especially in “The Dentist,” where a medical student (Baker) attempts to wrest an aching tooth from the reluctant mouth of a rector (Grubbe). This is the most physical of the sketches, and goes a little too far into slapstick for my taste, but it is generally funny, and Baker takes a tumble near the end that did NOT look like a stage fall. But, if he was in pain, he didn’t show it, and if we were, we forgot about it for most of the time we spend in the world of “The Good Doctor.”
The Good Doctor runs through October 22, 2013. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org.