In Little Fish Theatre’s The Good Doctor, The Writer (Daniel Gallai), a nameless Russian dressed as a fin de siècle gentleman, is modestly surprised to find himself surrounded by an audience. He immediately gushes about his artistic compulsion to write and write and write some more. When he suddenly gets an idea for a story, he rushes over to a desk and starts to scribble as the story evolves on the stage. It is Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Sneeze,” wherein a hapless apparatchik (Sam Gasch) and his wife (Maire-Rose Pike) attend the theatre and find themselves sitting behind his boss (Dan Adams) and his wife (Amanda Karr). When the poor schnook sneezes on his superior, riotous comedy ensues. This is the template for the eight, very entertaining short plays that follow.
Anton Chekhov was a physician by profession and a writer by avocation. Well known for his four major plays, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, he was also a renowned writer of short stories, which are still vibrant and entertaining today. Neil Simon crafted a play based on those stories. The Good Doctor opened on Broadway in 1973 and boasted an all-star cast with a Tony Award going to Frances Sternhagen for Best Featured Actress.
The Good Doctor boasts an excellent cast led by Mr. Gallai in the title role. He plays with passion and gives himself to the audience with intimate, direct eye contact. Under the direction of James Rice, the players deliver broadly comic performances, never shrinking back from the urge to go over-the-top. Ms. Karr is masterful at this. She is elegantly sinister as a wealthy woman humiliating a hapless nanny, played with demur shyness by Ms. Pike. In the second act, Ms. Karr throws caution and dignity to the winds as a petitioner who assaults and abuses a gout-stricken banker, Mr. Adams, who matches her level of insanity in this scene. In another scene, Mr. Adams indulges in slapstick agony as a priest suffering from an abscessed tooth at the hands of an hilariously unqualified doctor played by Mr. Gallai.
Mr. Gasch scores as a dockside entertainer who stages his own drowning for paying customers, and makes an adorable teenager who is shy of his father’s plan to introduce him to the knowledge that can be gained from an encounter with the opposite sex in a brothel. And Ms. Pike is simply splendid as a faithful wife who teeters on the edge of infidelity when a roué (Mr. Gallai) targets her as his next conquest. In a scene entitled The Audition, Mr. Gallai comes fully out as Anton Chekhov, when a stage struck girl from the sticks pleads for an audition. Ms. Pike plays up the comedy of a young woman desperate for a chance, and then drops all artifice when she delivers the final lines of The Three Sisters with ideal, unadorned passion, the most touching moment of the evening.
Little Fish Theatre is always inventive in configuring their limited space in creative ways. The Good Doctor is played in the round, which brings the performers so close to the audience at times that one could reach out and touch them without leaning forward. I love that kind of intimacy, something that is impossible in bigger houses. Their new air conditioning system keeps the audience deliciously cool as spring gives way to summer.
The Good Doctor, by Neil Simon & Anton Chekhov, continues through July 13 playing in rotating rep with Dear Master, which opens on Thursday, June 22, at Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre Street in San Pedro.