ANY CASUAL OBSERVER of Harvard theater gets the definite impression that relatively few people want to put on a comedy. Sure, there are occasional Shakespeare or Wilde pieces, but very rarely is there a comedy that one can regard as real relaxation therapy. Mostly, the theatergoer gets a strong dose of serious drama pregnant with a serious message. During the midterm season, such an overdose of gravity could be dangerous to your health, or at least to your stomach. Not to worry, however. Into this season of dramatic doldrums comes The Good Doctor, and any strong message he might have is given with a large dose of humor.
The fact that this is another Neil Simon play (for God's sake, how many are there?) should not frighten anyone off. It is one of the New Yorker's earlier works, and Simon, whose own characters have become walking cliches of American situation comedy, gains by the use of Chekov's characters. Each scene in the play is adapted from one of Chekhov's short stories, which means the actors must change character after each scene. This is a big challenge, and the cast, for the most part, meets it.
Lewis Goldman is impressive in his directorial debut. Goldman's actors are sharp on the delivery and capture just the right expressions, which not only reflects their own abilities but also show the director's skill in coordination. The audience can therefore forgive some directorial mistakes.
In comic theater, directors are faced with certain temptations. Very few actors, for example, can pull off a good Russian accent, and the cast members of The Good Doctor are not among this elite. If Goldman had dropped the Russian accents, the "Drowned Man" scene, in which David Angel employs a hilarious Monty Python accent, would have seemed more consistent. Other excesses of voice and gesture occur too much at random to be enjoyable and too much to be believably off-beat. In going for the cheap laugh, Goldman unfortunately loses his otherwise perfectly Chekhovian control and his sense of comic plausibility.
The show has a solid cast. Andrew Watson, Andrew Watson, who plays the Writer in most scenes, establishes a familiarity with the audience that grows with each scene. One forgets that he is one of the actors. Even when he plays an alternate role, such as the seducer of other men's wives (still chuckling about that scene), he carries this story teller familiarity with him.
Angel plays certifiably insane characters Whether he is a wormish clerk or an overly zealous medical student, a demented energy is always present He also exhibits many of the characteristic excesses of the show. His weasel-like voice in the first and last scenes is a little too much, as is his constant stooping But his energy consistently gets a laugh.
Adam Barr is best when he is ordinary Avan imperial Russian minister, he seems stiffer that even the role would call for. But as the straight man to cruel fate, he excels. He reaches his peak as a pathetic gouty banker descending into madness under the onslaught of an aggressive female.
The men are sound actors but the women in this cast are its real strength. Both exhibit a greater flexibility of character than their male counterparts. Lisa Peers is excellent both as the stern employer of a governess and as the loud-mouthed attacker of Barr. She can play both an ice queen and a timid heart.
Amy Zilliax has at least as good a range. She plays the shy governess, the repressed housewife, and the bold prostitute all with equal believability and skill. If acting were singing, she could sing five octaves of pure tones.
The play only falls flat during one scene, a musical duet between an old couple. It has the touching feeling of a rerun of The Waltons. However, this scene is nearly saved by the original music of Pat Romano. While the lines and lyrics just be there, the music conveys the emotion.
Good use is made of the Cabot House space. The lighting is simple but effective. With special effects, original music, some Scott Joplin preces, and a quality recording job, sound is one step above the canned music of some house shows, but, like the lighting, it's nothing extravagant.
The one disturbing element of this play is the scene endings. The play as a whole is a light treatment of the grotesque side of human affairs. The cast successfully conveys the repressed insanity that lies beneath social forms. But at the end of about half the scenes, the grotesque is fired at the audience point blank: so-and-so dies, so-and-so is trapped forever. Admittedly, the alternative of "inheriting five million rubies" is ridiculous; still, one does attend a Neil Simon comedy to get such depressing tidbits of reality. Perhaps there is some social message here about the nature of life. Perhaps midterms are the ultimate reality.
Still, in general, all things considered and as Harvard plays go, this one spell R-E-L-I-E-F. So, if your weekend is looking nauseous and your work is going critical, make an appointment with The Good Doctor. It is worth the extra yards.