"The Good Doctor," which opened Thursday night at Theater J, is Neil Simon's stage adaptation of some Chekhov short stories. It's an odd coupling, as if Norman Rockwell had decided to redo some Rembrandt pencils.
Levels of talent aside--and certainly Simon has never claimed to be Chekhov's equal--the sensibilities are completely at variance: Chekhov is all subtlety and nuance, Simon hits the joke or the point so hard he almost knocks the audience out.
A third incongruity is added by the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, co-producers with Theater J, which is presenting the play in its distinctive, mime-oriented, slightly abstract style. With Konstantin Tikhonov's spare set and Eric Grims's dreamlike lighting, the production looks like something out of Kafka, not Chekhov: a mysterious, slightly sinister fable.
Still, the evening's mismatched variety is as often intriguing as not. Simon's coarsening of Chekhov is wince-inducing (and, conversely, he's too respectful of his great source to cut loose and do his own best work). But while he's dragging things down, STS is spinning them into airy patterns, and the resulting distortion has its own theatrical fascination.
Simon's two-character (for the most part) scenes are expanded with non-speaking--but definitely not non-acting--personnel. A prostitute stands slumped with an out-thrust hip, like a debased siren by Toulouse-Lautrec. As a man invites a passerby to watch him drown himself, drowning and already dead people roll languidly in the stage "water" (created with lighting). A sequence about a painful dentist visit approaches the contrasting tonal extremes of silent comedy--slapstick yet lyrical.
Silent comedy is purely invoked in an interpolation STS has added to Simon's script: an untranslated story, "The Romance and the Double Bass," performed without words by Paata Tsikurishvili and his wife, Irina. Tsikurishvili, the striking actor-mime who played the title role in STS's "The Idiot," portrays a humble musician who, through a series of events too complicated to recount here, finds himself nude in the company of an equally nude lady (Irina Tsikurishvili), and possessing only his double-bass case with which to preserve the proper modesty.
This mute playlet is underscored by excerpts from Charlie Chaplin's music for "City Lights," and Chaplin himself makes an appearance in the person of actor Jonathan Leveck, playing the lady's initial lover with a graceful waddle and the occasional twitch of his (invisible) mustache. And Paata Tsikurishvili, though his hat is a red bowler rather than a flat little brimmed thing, is of course playing Buster Keaton. The results are so enchanting that you wish STS would just go ahead and adapt Chaplin's classic "The Gold Rush" to the stage.
When Tsikurishvili is floating and splashing happily in nonexistent water, the production mutates from an interesting curiosity into something magical, almost otherworldly. Watching him, a tennis enthusiast might think of a player's characterization of the great Bjorn Borg: "We are playing tennis. He is playing something else." Other people act; Tsikurishvili does something else. Whatever it is, it's the essence of why you go to the theater.
The Good Doctor by Neil Simon, based on short stories by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Andrei Malaev-Babel and Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili. With John Benoit, Armand Sindoni, Rachel Jett, Catherine Gasta, Lucas Maroney. At Theater J through Feb. 13. Call 800-494-8497.
CAPTION: Lucas Maroney and John Benoit in "The Good Doctor" at Theater J.