How does one stage a talk about sex between a father and son?
Or the seduction of a friend’s wife without the seducer ever facing the woman? Or the ramifications of sneezing all over your boss?
A good start would be to create a script that features one of the greatest short story writers who ever lived with Broadway’s master of comedy.
It might seem a longshot that the author of such humorous plays and screenplays like “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Goodbye Girl” and “The Odd Couple” would tackle the work of the great 19th century Russian writer Anton Chekhov.
But with his adaptation of several of Chekhov’s early short stories, Neil Simon succeeds in writing into “The Good Doctor” all the best nuances of the Russian humorist while throwing in his own Bronx, N.Y.-born sensibility to great effect.
The Whidbey Island Center for the Arts production of “The Good Doctor” opens Friday, June 6 and runs through June 21 on the Michael Nutt Mainstage.
“The Good Doctor” premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York City in November, 1973.
In November of 1977, Simon had this to say about the experience:
“The Good Doctor, of course, is not a play at all. There are sketches, vaudeville scenes, if you will, written with my non-consenting collaborator, Anton Chekhov. Not the Chekhov of ‘The Sea Gull’ and ‘The Three Sisters,’ but the young man who wrote humorous articles for the newspapers to pay his way through medical school. It was a pastiche for me, an enjoyable interlude before getting on to bigger things. It was a joyous experience.”
Island resident Michael Barker is directing the play and, even decades later, has a similar perspective to Simon’s about the play’s fun factor.
“Simon, who clearly loves Chekhov, has adapted these short stories into a string of playlets that reveal a great love for humanity and our foibles,” Barker said.
“We know these characters and perhaps we are these people,” the director added.
Barker anticipates that even with these turn-of-the-19th-century characters, the familiarity of their everyday situations will inspire laughter from timeless predicaments.
At the same time, so thorough is Chekhov in his discernment and inclusion of the whole gamut of human emotion that, although these stories are basically funny, they do contain moments of poignancy which Barker suspects may even elicit tears or at least some serious contemplations.
Taking a cue from some of the situations posed in the 11 vignettes —which are woven together with the help of a jovial narrator — Barker looks at them from his 21st century vantage point.
Referring to some of the stories of the play like “The Sneeze,” “The Arrangement,” “The Surgery” and “The Drowned Man,” Barker relates to the scenes through his own perspective.
“Who hasn’t been provoked by noise or talkers in a movie; or been vexed with a discussion of the birds and the bees between a father and son; or suffered the excruciating pain of a toothache while providing quiet amusement to onlookers; or bumped into a rather unscrupulous character while walking around in a shady area of some urban center across the water?”
Barker said he sees “The Good Doctor” as a magnified reflection of life distorted with humorous effect like that from a funhouse mirror.
“I picked this play because I laughed so hard it hurt,” Barker said.
He also chose the play because of its large cast, which gives the director the chance to offer roles to a good number of players in the community.
The demands of the thoroughly Russian but oddly familiar characters make the actors stretch beyond their emotional comfort zones, Barker said, and into situations which sometimes emulate a life or death experience.
“Still, it is a comedy and not any sort of tragedy,” Barker added.
“I believe that the folks that see ‘The Good Doctor’ will sleep better after the show. They will be happily spent.”
“The Good Doctor” features a cast that includes L. Bennett Nolan, Cliff Bjork, Morgan Bondelid, Carrie Carpenter, Tom Churchill, Barton Cole, Max Cole-Takanikos, Ed Cornachio, Patricia Duff, Allie Firth, Tom Harris, Kent Junge, Bridget Scott, Jim Scullin, Kathy Stanley and Katie Woodzick.
The production team is Alice Sterling (stage manager); Ron Atlee (scenic design); Valerie Johnson (costume design); Annie Deacon (lighting design); and David Ossman (sound design).
“The Good Doctor” runs at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays, June 6 through June 21.
Ticket prices are $16 for adults, $14 for seniors and $12 for youth. An opening night reception on June 6 is hosted by The Edgecliff Restaurant & Lounge.
Call the box office at 221-8268 or visit www.WICAonline.com for info.
Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.