‘The Good Doctor’ an affecting homage to Chekhov

Jason Grubbe and Aaron Orion Baker in ‘The Good Doctor.’ Photo: John Lamb 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief EMERITUS

At first, it might seem like Neil Simon and Anton Chekhov would be a very “Odd Couple.”  What could Chekhov, the Russian writer of short stories and plays who died of tuberculosis at the age of 44 in 1904 have in common with Simon, the most successful Jewish comedy playwright in American history?  

The answer is quite a lot, as proved by the solid New Jewish Theatre season opening production of Simon’s “The Good Doctor.” It brings to stage several of Chekov’s popular short stories, retold with respect for their Russian roots, but making the material accessible to American audiences. Bobby Miller skillfully directs a high-energy ensemble of gifted actors who clearly seem to relish their roles.   

“The Good Doctor” is not one of Simon’s best-known plays.  It was first produced on Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Nov. 27, 1973, featuring the acclaimed Christopher Plummer in the role of The Writer.  In the NJT staging, David Wassilak portrays The Writer, based on Chekhov himself, who serves as the play’s narrator.  

In his opening monologue, The Writer makes it clear that his need to write is all consuming.  “I would much rather talk than work, yet here I am, day after day haunted by one thought, I must write, I must write, I must write . . . So, I ask myself the question…what force is it that compels me to write so incessantly, day after day, page after page, story after story? . . .And the answer is quite simple….I have no choice.  I am a writer. . . Sometimes I think I am mad.”

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Obsessiveness is also a comedic undertone in “The Sneeze,” the first of the Chekhov vignettes.  Ivan Ilyitch Cherdyakov (Aaron Orion Baker) is a petty civil servant, a clerk in the Ministry of Public Parks whose love of theater is his only non-work-related diversion. 

Seated directly in front of Ivan and his wife Sonia (Teresa Doggett) at the theater are his respected superior, General Mikhail Brassilhov, the minister of Public Affairs (Jason Grubbe, a master of the slow burn and good timing), and his wife (Alina Volobuyeva).  Ivan makes an excessively fawning introduction of himself and his wife to the general and his wife.

Things seem to be going well when without warning Ivan explodes in a very messy sneeze, leaving its unpleasant residue over the back of the general’s head and the top of his spiffy uniform.  What follows is a downward spiral by Ivan from euphoria over meeting the General to an increasingly deranged dread that his faux pas will cost him his job and identity. 

The General, meanwhile, accepts Ivan’s apology and wants to get past the incident, but Ivan’s tormented brain won’t allow him to let go.   

Uniting several of the vignettes in this work are concerns around money.  In “The Governess,” Volobuyeva plays a seemingly heartless housewife who is “negotiating” with a young governess (Teresa Doggett).  It is clear from the start that the housewife is harshly cheating the governess of her promised compensation, and the young, powerless employee seems unable to stand up for her rights.  So harsh is the demeanor of the housewife in this scene, that audiences may not get at first that the scene contains a lesson in empowerment.

In “Surgery,” Aaron Orion Baker plays a young medical student filling in for the town’s dental surgeon while Grubbe plays the town Sexton, a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church.  He comes to the dentist’s office in unbearable pain from an abscessed tooth, which the doctor’s assistant is clueless as to how to cure.  The back and forth dialogue between the increasingly desperate sexton and the incompetent doctor’s assistant is funny in an almost Vaudeville style, recalling Simon’s evocation of that era in “The Sunshine Boys.”

Vignettes in this highly entertaining work include the wiles of a seducer of married women who “uses” their husbands as tools in his plots; a man who is duped into paying to see a man drowning himself and an affecting sequence about a young actress who fights through a high fever to try out for a coveted role.   

Others involve a wildly comic confrontation between a woman with a nervous disorder who harasses a very ill, pain-wracked banker into providing money for her injured husband, and a writer’s father taking his then 19-year-old son to a brothel.  Some of these skits are stronger than others, but the overall effect does justice both to the storytelling genius of Chekhov and the comedic legacy of Simon.