In its long tenure of 36 years in the city, Washington Stage Guild has made its mark, most particularly with plays by some of those understood as the great masters who founded modern drama — Ibsen and Shaw, Wilde and Chekhov. The company has opened its “Season of Transitions” with that curiosity The Good Doctor, penned by Neil Simon sharing writing credits with none other than Anton Chekhov, Russia’s greatest dramatist, who died in 1904.
Simon dominated the Broadway stage mid-20th century with his hit comedies, but he was most often underappreciated by the New York critics. So when he made a pivot in 1973 with his adaptations of some of Chekhov’s short stories, one has to wonder what spurred him to do so. Like Chekhov, who in addition to his four major plays wrote over 500 short stories, Simon was a prolific writer. Perhaps Simon wanted to do a deeper dive into characterization by studying how the Russian observer of human life found such dimensionality and humanity in his characters. Perhaps he felt he needed some of the “good doctor’s” medicine to exorcise his grievances against the Broadway critics.
Simon mined ten of Chekhov’s short stories and wove through these independent vignettes the character of a writer who, serving as his own alter ego, narrates, introduces characters and situations, and seems compulsively driven to “write, write, write.” You hear his self-referencing when the character voices faint praise by one critic claiming the writer was “charming and clever but a far cry from Tolstoy.”
Cameron McNary plays the Writer/Narrator with pumped-up energy and an assured way of breaking the fourth wall to engage with the audience in direct address. However, McNary had a habit of breaking off inhalations to start a line, like a seal gulping a fish, which began to annoy. Was this a character choice?
Chekhovian comedy is tricky, a blend of broad farce but always full of pathos and grounded in verisimilitude. The company didn’t quite manage to achieve the tone evenly.
Director Laura Giannarelli was most successful in the vignettes that demonstrated delicate pathos. She shaped a lovely scene in its simplicity, “Too Late for Happiness,” between the veteran actress and founding member Lynn Steinmetz and Morgan Duncan. There they were, a shy older couple meeting on a park bench. The scene featured a duet, and as they sang softly, their tremulous and exposed voices mirrored the deep truth of hesitancy mixed with longing for one last chance at love. (How much richer, I thought, than the blare that dominates today’s over-amplified Broadway musical or the hurried clutchings of speed dating for a “hook up.”)
An actress new to me on the Washington stage was Arika Thames. I especially liked the shift of power she portrayed from a meek governess to a woman who runs away with more than her just earnings from a foolish, avaricious landowner’s wife. This tall, beautiful artist will be seen much more locally, I wager. As she took on a moment of acting all three sisters at the end of the play of that name, she suddenly dropped all mannerisms and stylization, and I thought, here was her stellar audition moment and Chekhov revealed.
All in all, Morgan Duncan delivers the most varied and consistently successful characterizations. He carries off the stuffed-and-puffed-up class elegance of a general in “The Sneeze” only to return later in Act I in a highly physicalized comedic romp as a poor sexton in need and fear of a tooth extraction. In Act II, he gets teamed with McNary as two “old coots,” military veterans, who weekly wage verbal war with each other on matters of great opinion such as the ultimate lunch menu. This was one of the moments when as if the clouds parted, we were treated by both actors to what Artistic Director Bill Largess called Chekhov’s “affection for even his most foolish characters.”
Too much of this production, however, carried on too loudly and too over-the-top. Scott Harrison delivered characters from a cartoon universe, and his voice was too often pitched at his breaking point with his face set in grimacing masks to match. Whenever the voices and acting broadened to this degree by members of the ensemble, it had a curious flattening effect.
The set by Joseph Musumeci Jr. and lighting by Marianne Meadows worked hand in glove to make the most of the demands of the different settings of these vignettes, but in the long, low proscenium that is WSG’s stage, there were too many pushed moments that jarred the stage pictures. As the performance settles, the company will surely learn to trust the material of “the good doctor.”
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes including one intermission.
The Good Doctor plays through October 23, 2022, presented by Washington Stage Guild performing in The Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($50–$60, with half off for students and $10 off for seniors) can be purchased online.
COVID Safety: All patrons must wear masks at all times while in the theater. Washington Stage Guild’s complete Health and Safety Policy is here.
The Good Doctor
Written by Neil Simon and Anton Chekhov
Directed by Laura Giannarelli
With Morgan Duncan, Scott Harrison, Cameron McNary, Lynn Steinmetz, and Arika Thames
Set Design by Joseph B. Musumeci Jr.
Lighting Design by Marianne Meadows
Costume Design by Sígrid Jóhannesdóttir
Sound Design by Marcus Darnley
Fight Choreography by John Gurski
Stage Manager Arthur Nordlie
Produced by Washington Stage Guild