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THEATRE ‌ Playing Doctor

The Playhouse opens its sixth season on a silly but entertaining note

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Jake Hennessey and Steve Fordham
  • Jake Hennessey and Steve Fordham

The Good Doctor
Village Repertory Co.
Running through Sept. 24
Adults $20, Students & Seniors $18
Village Playhouse
730 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
856-1579

Life can be stressful for a playwright. Once a work is complete, producers, directors, and actors have a chance to interpret it as they see fit. Every new production has an even chance of becoming a polished gem or a dog's dinner.

Neil Simon, creator of the Village Playhouse's latest, would be pleased to know that they've scrubbed up The Good Doctor to make an appealing gewgaw; after all, he admitted that his 1973 comedy was little more than a string of sketches — a vaudeville show linked by a convivial narrator.

Simon brings his New Yorker sensibilities to the world of Russian literature, channeling the work of Anton Chekhov like a wild-eyed Coney Island medium. The narrator is Chekhov as a young humorist, fretting over the short stories that may become his legacy. Simon uses Chekhov's character to share the trials of writing with the audience, from the agony of mental blocks to the ecstasy of finding an inspired idea.

The Good Doctor is a simple show, and the set and lighting are correspondingly modest, tailored to its 19th-century setting. The costumes impressively evoke Chekhovian society, from its ragged hawkers to its white-gloved higher echelons.

As emcee Chekhov, Brad Leon maintains an easygoing flow from one scene to the next. He deftly slips into other personae, sometimes before our eyes. He portrays a Great Seducer of Other Men's Wives like a fey Regency England dandy, as silky smooth as his jaunty top hat. His overeager apprentice dentist character is imbued with the energy and high-pitched squeals of Elmo from Sesame Street.

Jake Hennessy contrasts this with a Topol-type voice in his role as a Sexton who's reluctant to have his tooth pulled. Hennessy gives us a range of amusing characters and vocal impressions that help to differentiate between his characters. He plays a Jimmy Durante-styled lowlife and a couple of simpering subordinates, scraping his way around a set that sometimes seems too small for him.

There's more contrast in the upper crust appearances of Steve Fordham, often acting as a straight man ignorant of the antics around him. But he excels in a silly scene at the show's climax, heaving a mightily bandaged foot around as he unsuccessfully fends off a money-grubbing client with equally mighty buttocks.

With a lot of padding and grimacing, Maggie Jo Saylor gets the most laughs as the money-grubber. She's joined in an earlier scene by Paulette Todd, who delivers the most distinctive characterizations through the play; high-school talent Ally Bing completes the cast, most notably appearing as a young governess and a phlegmatic actress.

As Chekhov points out to the audience, the misfortune of other people is a source of great amusement. The Good Doctor gives plenty of spins on such pain, physical and emotional, and it's funny stuff. The show's a good test of the actors' comedic mettle, and they aren't found wanting.

But it seems that, notwithstanding their modesty, Simon and Chekhov were aiming for something higher in the interpretation of their texts, aware that the best comedy is leavened with strong pathos. Director George Younts is celebrated for knowing exactly what he wants, and he gets it in this production. It's a cheery play with a little bit of food for thought, but nothing that the audience can't digest in a hurry. Through all the screaming and the slapstick, though, serious dramatic moments are not exploited to their full potential, and the actors don't seize these opportunities to show how versatile they really are. Lonely or unfulfilled characters stay sketchy, and what should be an electrifying moment — an excerpt from Three Sisters — fails to create a buzz. That qualifies this Doctor as a first-aid fix of fun rather than a major operation.

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