Arts & Culture » Theater

Russian Duet: It's a red October in St. Louis with stagings of The Good Doctor and Diary of a Madman



Now that he is 86 years old and essentially retired, the arc of Neil Simon's prolific career is coming into focus. His writing was shaped by an early burst of long-running comedies and musicals (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, among others). Then in 1973, having enjoyed a dozen years as the world's most commercially successful playwright, Simon decided to try something different. Rather than write his annual foolproof comedy about the angst of living in contemporary New York, he concocted The Good Doctor, a compilation of playlets adapted from or suggested by the short stories of the masterful Russian author Anton Chekhov. Although The Good Doctor is not foolproof material, it does make merry with fools. The show is currently receiving an engaging staging at New Jewish Theatre.

Simon's riffs on Chekhov are introduced, bridged and sometimes acted by a genial narrator known only as the Writer (David Wassilak), who may or may not be a composite of Chekhov and Simon (Chekhov was a medical doctor; Simon's nickname is Doc) — though to be sure, there's more of Simon than of Chekhov here. A sketch like "Surgery," about a painfully exaggerated extraction at the dentist's office, is as beholden to Simon's own Sunshine Boys (which immediately preceded The Good Doctor) as it is to Chekhov — with an additional nod to W. C. Fields' classic 1932 film short "The Dentist." "The Audition" is not based on any Chekhov story. It was written as a gift for the St. Louis actress Marsha Mason, with whom Simon was falling in love at the time. Here, "The Audition" is performed by Alina Volobuyeva, a luminous young actress from the Ukraine whose skin glows whenever it is caressed by the soft lighting designed by Maureen Berry.

Director Bobby Miller deftly navigates the evening through a series of mood swings that veer from hilarity to rue. Miller is aided by a versatile five-actor ensemble. In addition to the radiant Volobuyeva, Aaron Orion Baker evokes an amusing and appealing innocence in several sketches. Once again Teresa Doggett hilariously bulldozes her way through her role(s). Doggett possesses the gift of being able to bring conviction to even the most outrageous characters. Jason Grubbe is a marvel as a couple of government bureaucrats. With his full beard and pretzel slouch, the stocky Grubbe so resembles an Al Hirschfeld theater caricature come to life that a viewer is tempted to want to start looking for "Ninas" hidden in the creases of Grubbe's furrowed brow.

Of necessity, the Writer is the sanest character in the piece. David Wassilak brings a simple accessibility to this everyman, but he seems happiest when he gets to intrude himself into the plots. Wassilak is especially effective as a roué who sets out to seduce a friend's wife. All five actors are beautifully outfitted by Michele Friedman Siler. The flexible scenic design by Dunsi Dai also contributes to the evening's success. One minute the stage is cluttered; a minute later it is bare.

The Good Doctor has never been one of Simon' more popular vehicles. When neither this piece nor his next idiosyncratic play (God's Favorite) found favor with mass audiences, Simon veered back toward more conventional fare. Four decades later, people continue to disparage The Good Doctor as one of Simon's lesser efforts. But collectively, the sketches are funny, sad, surprising. If you listen carefully to the Writer's revelatory words, there are modest truths to be gleamed about the solitary nature of creative writing. What is not to like here?

We're not through with the Russians yet. Aksentii Ivanovich Poprishchin is holding court in the Upstream Theater adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's 1835 short story, "Diary of a Madman." "You may find my monologue funny," Gogol once said. "It is funny. That is no illusion. I am a humorist. But if you are prepared to immerse yourself in my text — or a performance thereof — I may hope to give you, here and there, a tremor..."

There are tremors aplenty in this current performance, directed by Philip Boehm. The setting (by Michael Heil) is, one assumes, a cell containing only a table, stool and cot. Yet nothing here is as it seems. The cubicle, for instance, is on an incline, so that its lone occupant is constantly climbing uphill. Off to one side, Joe Dreyer (in a Chaplin-esque black derby) plays the same kind of tinkling piano music that might accompany a silent movie. Our protagonist wears the unwashed, baggy clothes we associate with buffoons. His white paste makeup is clownish, and he rattles newspaper pages in an extravagant manner worthy of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. This Diary of a Madman (which was adapted by Australian David Holman, with the assistance of Neil Armfield and actor Geoffrey Rush, who has performed the piece on various continents) does not depict an asylum as a snake pit; here, madness is presented as vaudeville.

Obviously, the very title of the piece gives the plot away. Poprishchin may be the only person in the Kranzberg Arts Center who does not know he's crazy. Initially he reveals himself as merely put-upon. He has suffered insults at the office where he works as a minor civil servant. (He is the keeper of the quills — and indeed, quills in ink pots dot the stage floor where, a century ago, footlights would have been positioned.) Perhaps it's when the delusional Poprishchin begins sharing his long-held "suspicion about dogs," especially talking dogs, that the obvious is made apparent. Then when he reveals that he is actually the King of Spain, the vaudeville is over. "The help of a benevolent god" which he so craves is not to be found.

The paradox here is that the madder Poprischin becomes, the more cogent the play. At the outset, our petty bureaucrat is a kind of piddling Hamlet, dealing in "words, words, words" that eat up a lot of time without adding up to very much. But by evening's end, he can emit a simple howl of "no, no, no, no, no" that sounds as eloquent as anything Shakespeare ever wrote. The true measure of Christopher Harris' title-role portrayal is its utter believability. Even at its most theatrical — as when, for instance, Harris is hanging from poles in a manner that resembles an overstuffed scarecrow — we accept him for who he is. He never "plays" madness.

Mostly that chore is left to Magan Wiles, who makes a most welcome return to town after a two-year absence to fill out the evening with three supporting roles: a Finnish servant girl who tends to Poprishchin, an idealized young beauty who is mostly a figment of his imagination, and finally a fellow inmate. Especially as the Finnish girl, Wiles' saucer eyes tell us how ill this madman truly is. She is the production's constant reaction shot. And when, at evening's end, Wiles wanders onstage in a straightjacket, dazed and lost, we sense that these two inmates are mirror images. She already is what he has become. The realization brings this odd evening to a heartbreaking climax. 

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