THE GOOD DOCTOR
Written by Neil Simon and based on short stories by Anton Chekhov. Directed by James Scott. Set design by Sam Wilde. Co-produced by Honest Puck and Limbo Theatre. Perform Australia Theatre. August 28 – August 31 2019
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
Limbo Theatre is a relatively new and welcome addition to Canberra’s theatre scene. The company that cut its teeth on an excellent local production of Dario Fo’s satirical farce Accidental Death of an Anarchist once again demonstrates the talented company’s comedic talents with Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize winning homage to Anton Chekhov, The Good Doctor. (Chekhov was a country doctor whose stature as a dramatist elevated the modern teachings of the great Konstantin Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre at the turn of the nineteenth century in Russia). Inspired by a collection of Chekhov’s short stories, Simon weaves nine of the stories into a two hour play in which Chekhov acts as the narrator, introducing the characters and scenarios of seven of the short stories in Limbo Theatre’s production.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether Simon is referring to himself as the immensely prolific Chekov announces his impulsive, obsessive need to write. Damon Baudin is ideally cast as the slightly built and nervy Russian playwright. He commands an interesting presence upon the stage and draws his audience into each of his stories with an array of complex and instantly recognizable character types. The Sneeze is an awkwardly embarrassing account of a young clerk who sneezes over his superior’s neck and desperately seeks to apologize for his sneeze. Izaac Beach is excellent as the bumbling, fawning clerk, confounded in his attempts to apologize to his superior in the Department of Trees and Bushes (Hayden Splitt). Class and status play their part in eliciting laughter at another soul’s sorry misfortune. Heidi Silberman effectively arouses our ire as she methodically appears to cheat her children’s spineless governess, played with gauche subservience by Immi Irvine, out of her rightful salary. A grimacing and writhing Nick Steain turns in a melodramatic performance as an unfortunate sexton with an agonizing toothache at the mercy of an enthusiastic trainee (Anneka van der Velde)
Not one to suffer fools gladly, Chekov makes short shrift of a supercilious seducer (Hayden Splitt). Female wile played with seductive cunning by van der Velde is fertile fodder for skilfully contrived come-uppance. With The Seducer I couldn’t help feeling that director, James Scott, who also plays the hapless husband and other roles with great aplomb during the evening, lacked the lighter touch in his direction. The Seducer needed to dart in and out through light and shade rather than lumber with repetitive intent.
Chekov calls his short one act plays jests and his masterpieces such as The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard comedies, more often referred to as tragi-comedies. The Good Doctor and its seven short adaptations of Chekov’s short stories in Limbo Theatre’s heavier handed treatment highlight social injustice, human vulnerability, class distinction and the absurdity of the human condition. This is not a negative appraisal of this production or the interpretation played out by director and cast. The production is not without its moments of poignancy and pathos. There is still ample scope for laughter in Simon’s cleverly crafted play and the cast’s relished playing of the comical moments. The audience lapped up a night’s fun entertainment, generally at the expense of some poor soul’s misfortune or embarrassment as in the case of Izaac Beach’s shaking knees before the prospect of the young Anton’s sexual education in The Arrangement.
Chekov’s characters may be silly, laughable even, but they are human and the playwright and good country doctor who crafted his dramas for Stanislavski’s acting method never lost sight of tolerance, compassion and understanding. Simon sweetens the pain with a five million rouble windfall for the more unfortunate victims of life’s bitter pill. It’s a touch of comedic empathy that guarantees a happy ending with an unexpected twist of irony.
And for the audience a happy ending to an enjoyable night at the theatre.