As the audience enters the SCC Theater to watch Hillel Theater Group’s production of “The Good Doctor” by Neil Simon and Anton Chekhov, they are greeted by the sight of a sparse, dichromatic set, split into “indoors” stage right and “outdoors” stage left. While the design is not particularly visually stimulating, these nebulous spaces prove essential to the structure of the play: a series of vignettes, tied together by a Narrator (Jose Castellanos ’18) clearly if not explicitly Anton Chekhov himself, who is sitting on stage, scribbling at a desk as the audience takes their seats. His writer’s block is established before a word is spoken, as evidenced by the many drafts he discards into a wastebasket by the desk. When the wastebasket becomes full, he frustratedly discards its crumpled contents over the front of the stage, scattering paper over the front of the house and breaking the fourth wall for the first but certainly not last time. After the second iteration of this series of actions, the house lights dim, and the show begins.
The Narrator addresses the audience directly, scattered and frustrated over his preoccupation with writing and his current inability to do so. Castellanos exhibited a nicely crafted affect, his voice and movements pleasant and graceful yet failed to communicate any true inner life; he appeared as an actor appearing frazzled. The Narrator then guides us into vignette after vignette, framing each story. Director Brian Dorfman ’16 notes that the play finds its coherence in this author character; we care about each story because each reveals the author to us, giving us insight into this complicated, creating man. Unfortunately, the lack of depth in Castellanos’ portrayal made it difficult to experience that necessary coherence and left the show feeling a bit aimless and rambling. It must be noted, however, that the play itself demands an excessive amount from the Narrator, so perhaps this is more a flaw of the script than of Castellanos’ acting.
The 10 Chekhovian short stories told throughout the play vary in success. An ensemble of seven actors, each with multiple roles, plays the characters within these stories, with the Narrator occasionally stepping in to take on a role. “The Sneeze” and “The Governess” were both lightly entertaining, pleasant and easily-swallowable humor: nothing you haven’t seen before, but enjoyable nonetheless! “Surgery” was a bit halting, but Maggie Ziegel ’18 was highly engaging as she attempted to ward off amateur dentist Jade Garisch ’15. In particular, Ziegel’s energy and facial expressions elevated the vignette. The stage combat in the scene, despite being well choreographed, was played too realistically, tingeing the humor with an uncomfortable violence. Another uncomfortable moment was when the dentist straddles the patient, suggesting sexuality as she forcibly removes the patient’s tooth.
“Too Late for Happiness” featured singing, showcasing Sarah Ackerman’s ’17 wonderful voice and allowing for a genuinely sweet moment as two elderly people wonder if they still have time for love. The first act closes with “The Seduction,” in which the Narrator portrays a man attempting to, well, seduce his friend’s wife. It’s a tired story, one that plays on old tropes, and not even Castellanos in spandex could revive it. Garisch provides a lovely moment, though, when she, as the seduced wife, responds to the suggestion that she become an actress with “Me? On the stage?” and a huge wink to the audience.
The second act opens with the Narrator, on a nighttime stroll, encountering a shady, leather-jacket-clad, beanie-wearing figure (Riely Allen ’18). “The Drowned Man” was one of the two most successful vignettes, because it made the most direct comment on the nature of theater, entertainment and spectacle. In doing so, the vignette found nuance and depth that the rest of the play lacked. Allen’s performance sparkled with intrigue and natural humor and did not shy away from the darkness that gives Chekhov’s work its brilliance. The other most successful vignette followed. “The Audition” consists of a woman (Lily Elderkin ’18) auditioning, presumably, for Chekhov. Elderkin stood in front of a scrim, alone on stage, and managed to fill the space with her nervous determination. Of all the many characters portrayed throughout the evening, the auditioner felt real in a way none else did. Elderkin did a superb job of taking a truly challenging theatrical moment and bringing it alive.
“A Defenseless Creature” featured a gouty and worn out banker (Morgan Winters ’17) being accosted by a wild and desperate Ziegel. Winters played the part quite convincingly—if anything, perhaps too convincingly; her acting was so realistic that it was hard to laugh at her pain. Nevertheless, the expression on her face at the reveal at the close of the scene elicited a large laugh from the audience. “A Quiet War” showcased the wonderful Russian accent of Sonja Unica ’18 as she and Elderkin portrayed two crotchety old military men arguing over the ideal lunch. Her affect was quite convincing, and added interest to an otherwise slow scene.
The play closes with “The Arrangement,” in which the Narrator recounts his own father’s attempt to “make him a man.” The Narrator plays his own father, whipping out a silly moustache, which unfortunately refused to stay attached to Castellanos’ face, serving as more of a distraction than a boon to the scene. The final moments of the play return to a direct address with the Narrator alone on stage, feeling fulfilled after sharing his stories with us. And indeed, Castellanos shines in this moment, confidently delivering a clever twist on a running joke to conclude.
Throughout the play, some elements worked and some didn’t. Allen stood out as one who did, consistently delivering varied and engaging performances with a sort of puppy-dog charisma. The lighting design (Jessica Pizzuti ’15, Harry Furer ’17 and Zak Kolar ’18) was well thought-out and highly effective, drawing audience awareness to the theatricality of the piece in a way that contributed to it thematically without being distracting. However, the pace was very slow and detracted from the humor, making funny lines seem dramatic and extending the length of the show to an excessive two and a half hours. Additionally, many opportunities for humor were missed; the production did everything it needed to do and little more. The fourth wall was broken almost constantly, with a look out to the audience every time the word “doctor” was said, in addition to other moments. While the play was clearly meant to be metatheatrical, the sheer amount of breaking diluted the effect.
“The Good Doctor” was overall a pleasant night of theater, one that had moments of excellence but one that failed to be transformative. I thank the cast and crew for their effort and wish that they had had more time or less material so that they could have dug deeper and found more.