Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Good Doctor (1978)

It seems that most great contemporary talents have, at some point in their careers, been such in awe of their inspirational forebears that they feel compelled to emulate then in some way or another, usually calling their product “tribute” or “ode.” This sort of dressing-up mostly applies to writers or directors in the performing arts – look at Woody Allen, who filmed his elegies Interiors and Memories for Ingrid Bergman and Federico Fellini, respectively. And Neil Simon, sometime in the early 70s, must’ve looked back to his gods, namely Anton Chekov, and written The Good Doctor, which opened on Broadway in 1973.

In 1978, the PBS series Great Performances aired a videotaped presentation of the play, and it’s certainly a good-looking product, transcending the familiar camera-nailed-to-floor approach with strikingly distinct set pieces and fluid editing to overcome the staginess. Only six actors – Richard Chamberlin, Marsha Mason, Bob Dishy, Lee Grant, Ed Asner, Gary Dontzig – occupy a myriad of characters inhabiting ten Chekov stories, all connected by Chamberlin, as Chekov himself, introducing them, and musing about the writing craft in the process. The stories are:

“The Sneeze” A skittishly overnurotic clerk sneezes on his boss with a myriad of repercussions, taken to a ludicrous, and dark, extreme.
“The Governess” A woman gradually cheats her governness out of a month’s salary, all as a test of her assertiveness.

“The Seduction” A self-proclaimed lothario explains to the audience how he seduces married women, all with the assistance of their oblivious husbands.

“The Drowned Man” A vagrant coaxes a gentleman into paying him to simulate a drowning.

“The Audition” A woman auditioning for Chekov himself bends over backwards to please, before acting a showstopping scene from his Three Sisters.

“A Defenseless Creature” A penniless yet persistent woman manages to extract money from an obstinate banker.

“The Arrangement” A father arranges for his 19-year-old son to lose his virginity at a brothel.

At first it may be difficult to detect Simon’s hand in this collection – he’s writing in the style of his turn-of-the century Russian inspiration. But after a bit, you start to hear it – in the craft, witty wordplay, the recurring comic motifs, the exaggerated
situations, and self-unaware neurotic characters clashing with more grounded, often exasperated ones. It’s all there, sans the one liners and ethnic idioms. But writing in this context he gets to explore the pathos of the human condition a little deeper. Many of the characters here have darker sides, and the brevity of their stories gives them a feel of fablism (a number of them are full of irony; Chekov as a short-story writer is sort of like the Russian O Henry). Certainly a full-length play like his would be a downer; as vignettes it’s just right.
The actors is superb here, and it’s great to see them in a play, the most basic of all performing media, and often the most emotionally engaging. Chamberlain plays several roles but as Chekov, looping it all together, he sums up the play’s theme – that the writing process is a slow, tortured one, but it sustains life – it needs to be done for not simply happiness but survival. These stories he tells illuminate the point to all existence, as life-endowing for the creator as for the patron. Marsha Mason is the leading female, playing four or five roles as different as they are striking. Perhaps the most emotionally powerful one comes in a vignette Simon wrote just for this presentation: “The Audition,” about a nervous woman auditioning for a playwright. Mason met future husband Simon during auditions for Doctor, so added this story as a gift for his wife, and what a gift. Mason (as the auditioner) performs the roles of all three sisters in Three Sisters, and we’re just as mesmerized as Chekov is. 
Also noteworthy: “The Governess,” a sharp allegory about those who rule, and those who are ruled by others. It’s riveting but disturbing stuff. “A Defenseless Creature” features Lee Grant as a poor madwoman entreating a cold banker for money, in a tour de force of lunacy…. and ultimate efficacy. And the final story, “The Arrangement,” is a fond remembrance of how the narrator’s father took him to a brothel “to become a man.” Sounds tawdry, but it’s a rather touching and sad salute to bygone days, and the irrevocable loss of innocence.

I’ll pay Simon the ultimate contribution for his efforts: it makes me want to read Chekov. This is a wonderful work.

Stage in Simon’s life: his present era, worshipping at the altar of dramaturgic greats.

Rating: ****

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