Doctor in the House: Neil Simon gets a shot of inspiration from a master of the short-story form

In 1973, after having enjoyed a dozen years as the world's most commercially successful playwright, Neil Simon decided to try something different. Rather than write his annual foolproof comedy about the angst of living in contemporary New York, he concocted The Good Doctor, a compilation of nine playlets adapted from or suggested by the masterful stories of Anton Chekhov. The pieces are introduced, bridged and sometimes acted by a narrator known only as The Writer, who may or may not be a composite of Chekhov and Simon. (Chekhov was a medical doctor; Simon's nickname is Doc.) Although The Good Doctor is not foolproof material, it does make merry with fools.

To be sure, there's more of Simon than of Chekhov here. A sketch like "Surgery," about a painfully exaggerated extraction at the dentist's office, is as beholden to Simon's own Sunshine Boys (which immediately preceded The Good Doctor) as it is to Chekhov. "The Audition" is not based on a Chekhov story. It was written during the New York rehearsals as a gift for the actress Marsha Mason, with whom Simon was falling in love at the time. (Coincidentally, Mason grew up in Crestwood, only a mile from where Avalon Theatre Company is staging this production.) Here, Mason's "audition" is performed with a sweet poignancy by Theresa Hermann.

Director James Anthony understands the evening's varied nuances; he appreciates how the mood must change from hilarity to rue in little more than a heartbeat. Anthony has elicited engaging performances from his small ensemble. After Austin Pierce has sneezed on the wrong bureaucrat or, in a later sketch, gazed with wonder upon the right lady of the evening, Pierce displays saucer-cup eyes that even Eddie Cantor would envy. Judi Mann delightfully bulldozes her way through "A Defenseless Creature," an ironically titled farce about the perils of banking. (This sketch inadvertently has been omitted from the playbill, but it's a winner.) Mann and Hermann are equally effective in "The Governess," a wry piece that pits self-confidence against simplemindedness.

Judi Mann, Dean Christopher and Larry Mabrey in Avalon's The Good Doctor
Steve Krieckhaus
Judi Mann, Dean Christopher and Larry Mabrey in Avalon's The Good Doctor

Details

The Good Doctor
Through November 21 at the ArtSpace at Crestwood Court (formerly Crestwood Plaza), Watson and Sappington roads, Crestwood.
Tickets are $30 ($20 for students, $25 for seniors).
Call 314-351-6482 or visit www.avalontheatre.org.

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But what elevates Avalon's Good Doctor into an evening of comic brilliance is the tour de force by Dean Christopher. His various portrayals display marvelous precision and impeccable timing. Watch Christopher, for instance, in "A Defenseless Creature." For most of the sketch he is trapped behind a desk, with one foot encased in bandages. Movement is at a minimum, yet he is almost graceful in his stillness. In "The Drowning Man" Christopher seems to be channeling his seaside harbor tramp through the crisp prism of British comedian Terry-Thomas. He is a wonder throughout the brisk evening.

The pivotal role of The Writer can probably be portrayed in any number of ways. An unnamed Writer is, after all, a sort of Everyman. But while the production is clearly set in 19th-century Russia, Larry Mabrey's Writer lacks a sense of period or European manner.

One can only imagine what Christopher might have made of the Writer. But then he wouldn't be playing some of the characters he's doing now. The Good Doctor is a showcase for the indispensable actor.

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