DREADFUL FUN Joe Henderson and Kevin Broccoli in The Good Doctor.
Neil Simon may not be the most subtle of playwrights, too often tempted beyond endurance to go for the gag at the expense of motivation. But he deserves a hearty toast — the good vodka, please — for his collaboration with Anton Chekhov on The Good Doctor, which is getting an uproarious production at 2nd Story Theatre through April 10.What a cast of characters. An incompetent dentist, a skillfully insistent little old lady, a pitiful target of seduction, a seduction-averse young man, and so much more. Without props or scenery, the eye-catching costume design by Ron Cesario, from an ornately uniformed general to a colorfully gussied-up prostitute, are especially helpful visual aids.
It's hard to imagine the 19th-century Russian author not smiling at these performances. They are directed by the company artistic director Ed Shea and the theater's co-founder, Pat Hegnauer, whose specialty is the intimate one-on-one exchanges that these pieces rely on. She knows when an actor's less can be more and when to let him or her loose. The 21 actors here, with few exceptions, are familiar faces on the 2nd Story stage, and the opportunity has drawn out their best.
Identified only as the Writer, John Michael Richardson brightly portrays Chekhov, who introduces and narrates these brief stories and sometimes engages with the characters. Rather than building up to the most outrageous piece, things kick off with "The Sneeze";thanks to Jonathan Jacobs as the irrepressible sneezer, it's the hilarity high point. He is Cherdyakov, a lowly bureaucrat in the Ministry of Public Parks. At the opera, the minister of that department, Gen. Brassilhov (Vince Petronio), is seated in front of him, the occasion for obsequious fawning as well as the fateful ah-choo. More than the repeated sight gag, the humor of the piece comes from social commentary: lower-class Cherdyakov wants desperately to behave like a gentleman, so he can't stop apologizing, then or even the next day.
Physical humor is also relied on in "Surgery," in which the dentist is out but his assistant (Andrew Iacovelli) is all too eager to take pliers to the throbbing molar tormenting a poor sexton (Nicholas Thibeault). As the two jostle and wrestle around the stage, our howls of laughter over howls of pain may reveal us to be secret sadists, but few will be able to resist at least a wide grin.
The title character in "A Defenseless Creature" is a force of nature — human nature. The chatterbox of a woman (Pam Faulkner) has been getting no help from the proper social agencies for her husband's debilitating disorder, a quite understandable nervous condition. Arbitrarily, she goes to a bank for compensation and argues her case before the manager, Kistunov (Joe Henderson). Like tall waves crashing upon a shore, her inundating words eventually wear him down, of course. Both Faulkner's incessant prattle and Henderson's transition from cheerfully dismissive to agonized are dreadful fun to watch.
A similar intensity entertainingly consumes F. William Oakes as the entrepreneurial tramp in "The Drowned Man." He is auditioning for a passing policeman (Max Ponticelli) because he wants to be paid to perform a dramatically convincing drowning in a nearby river. That contrasts nicely with the following piece, "The Audition," in which a young woman (Donna Lubrano) quietly, skillfully, performs before her hero Chekhov after walking all the way from Odessa.