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Chekhov for Democrats

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THE GOOD DOCTOR

KKT Productions

at Chicago Cooperative Stage

THE STAR SPANGLED GIRL

Back Rent Players

at the Playwrights' Center

A principle of comedy that's been attributed to Mack Sennett, Billy Wilder, and Groucho Marx, among others, goes that if you dress a man up as an old lady and put him in a wheelchair headed for a cliff, it's not funny--but if it's a genuine old lady, it's funny. This principle may describe the old-fashioned comedy still prevalent in British satire, which ranks among the most mean-spirited in the world. But modern American comedy tends to insist that only the deserving be punished and, furthermore, that even justly deserved punishment not be overly severe. If the old lady in the chair is Phyllis Schlafly, her imminent danger might be funny, but the moment the chair falls over the cliff the humor ceases.

The reasons for this difference in comedic sensibility may be tied to the character of American society. The great social and economic mobility that characterizes our culture makes us disinclined to ridicule those whom we may become at some future time. It would behoove all of us, goes our reasoning, to think twice before sneering at subordinates who may someday outrank us or at superiors to whose positions we aspire. In any case, the temporariness of most terms of office and the turnover of the people who fill them has the effect of discouraging equation of person and position. As much as we may deplore a person's actions or ideas, we rarely deplore the person himself. Once an offender has discontinued his offense, we are usually quite willing to welcome him back into the tribe (look at Richard Nixon). Only when there is no hope for change does the sinner become synonymous with the sin and is the human being condemned for what he is rather than what he does.

Chekhov's society, on the other hand, was fairly fixed. His comedies, usually based on the ruthless exploitation of the weak by the strong, frequently fail to communicate with American audiences, and Neil Simon, possibly the greatest farceur in American theater, knows this. In The Good Doctor, an adaptation of several Chekhov tales, he is very careful to see that bullies are overturned by those whom they would bully, or at least are confronted with the error of their ways. He also sees to it that the humor arises not from any one character's personality but from circumstances that cause interpersonal conflict.

For instance, compare Simon's interpretation of the story "Surgery" with that performed by the Studio Theatre of Moscow this past spring. In the story, a sexton must have a troublesome tooth pulled by an inexperienced dentist. As done by the Moscow company, the dentist was a tall, sinister figure, callously taking advantage of the vulnerable position into which the sexton has been thrust by his affliction. In Simon's version, however, the dentist is a young medical student, eager to perform his first actual extraction, and the sexton a fat man terrified of pain. Thus, two men, equal in power, share the same goal--they are in perfect agreement that the tooth must be pulled--and instead of one man imposing his will upon the other, both struggle together to battle the villainous tooth. When the contest ends in a stalemate--the tooth breaks, leaving half out and half in--the man of science and the man of God kneel together to pray for a miracle to relieve their suffering. Yes, life is cruel, says the playwright, but it is cruel to all mortals alike.

This guiding principle is stated outright by the character who serves as the narrator, bridging the different vignettes. After the first of these, which involves a lowly clerk who accidentally sneezes on his superior and so pesters the latter with apologies for the faux pas that he finally invites the punishment he fears, the narrator starts to tell us that the hapless hero dies of despair--but almost immediately changes his mind, saying, "Wait! For those who are offended by life's cruelty, there's an alternative ending," and proceeds to have the clerk inherit a large sum of money.

In this speech is the precept upon which Simon's interpretation of Chekhov is constructed. Simon's talent lies in finding inventive ways to reconcile initially incompatible partners. His impulse to find an equitable solution to every conflict is apparent in every story: The Don Juan renounces his philandering ways upon having his conscience pricked by the plea of one of his victims. The lady of the house who plays a sadistic joke on her maid, inventing elaborate reasons why the latter should not receive her pay, is stricken with remorse by the meek resignation with which the servant accepts her cavalier treatment. A father bent on hiring a prostitute to deflower his reluctant son has second thoughts about pushing the boy into maturity so soon. The narrator says he wishes all the stories could end with the protagonist receiving a serendipitous fortune, and his last words to the audience at the end of the evening are "May you all inherit five million rubles."

The six actors who play the 22 characters in the eight plays that make up the evening's program do so with verve and imagination, particularly Kyle Storjohann, the narrator, who also exhibits a fresh-faced enthusiasm in roles ranging from the caddish womanizer to the virginal son, and Mary Gable, who plays three aristocratic ingenues with wide-eyed grace, only to be transformed in a later tale into a hausfrau with the tenacity of a pit bull and a voice to shatter windows. Worthy of mention as well is Dan Freitag's nicely understated straight man; the chemistry between the high-strung Gable and the phlegmatic Freitag in their scenes together make them a team to watch. Other outstanding performances include Patrick Causgrove as the determined dentist, Thom Miller as the father anxious to do right by his son, and Penny Slusher as a provincial actress whose sincerity and courage overcome the prejudices of a jaded cosmopolitan director.

Kathleen A. Halter's direction reflects a keen ear for slapstick and comic timing. The Good Doctor is KKT's inaugural production, but there is no evidence of the usual technical penny-pinching often found in first ventures. The costumes, by Sue Filerio, Halter, and Storjohann, are especially good--always appropriate and complete, despite the design problems inherent in doing eight separate plays in less than two hours. Although new on the block, KKT has everything it takes for a long and productive future.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Back Rent Players, whose halfhearted production of Simon's early play The Star Spangled Girl is all the more inexcusable when one considers that "Back Rent Players" is a pseudonym for the resident staff at the Playwrights' Center, who should have enough experience and know-how to do better than this.

Simon himself has indicated a certain disappointment with his 1966 attempt to address the blossoming social phenomenon some journalists were already calling the "counterculture." Although Simon's tale of how two earnest male intellectuals and the ultrapatriotic female jock next door all learn that Love Is All You Need would play anywhere, anytime, his efforts to impose youthful west-coast culture (his two heroes are the publisher and writer of a radical-protest magazine called Fallout) on the middle-aged New York sensibility that is Simon's natural milieu never quite manage to overcome culture shock. (His Arkansas ingenue is named Sophie Rauschmeyer--a New England name, or maybe a midwestern one, but not a name to be found south of the Mason-Dixon line.)

This does not make The Star Spangled Girl unplayable by any means. The text contains some of Simon's funniest lines ("What could I do for her that's very small and very personal?" asks the lovesick Norman, and the exasperated Andy replies, "How about brushing her teeth?"), and the conflict between social critics and defenders of the status quo is not without relevance today. Director Steve Bruce, however, seems to have overlooked this in his mission to create a piece of lowbrow fluff that will make money for the Playwrights' Center (that this is of top priority is no secret--the tin cup is waved in our faces more often than in the Washington Street subway station). The target audience for this play would seem to be fortysomething baby boomers, whose memories stretch back at least to the early 60s, but this production behaves as if the counterculture had not existed before the summer of '67. (In fact the activities of Students for a Democratic Society, the supporters of the Free Speech Movement, and the entire San Francisco renaissance were well under way as early as 1962.) A lackadaisical attitude toward costumes and scenery doesn't help matters; with seemingly no thought of the jarring effect of anachronism, period references to draft-card burning, Lyndon Johnson's presidency, and dancing the Monkey at a discotheque called the Velvet Cucumber are presented to us by characters costumed in very 1990 clothes, haircuts, and attitudes.

The key to playing the historical irresponsibility of The Star Spangled Girl is to make the characters naive and energetic to the point of anarchy; youth has always been impetuous and enthusiastic, but the mid-60s elevated mindlessness to a cardinal virtue. The actors in this production, however--Daniel Michael Frazier as the hormone-driven Norman, Susan Shimer as the right-wing object of his affections, and Curtis Osmun as the would-be voice of reason--speak of police states and sit-ins with the dutiful precision of students reciting their history lessons, and overaged students at that. The finished product resembles not three postadolescents reveling in the promise of their years and their certainty of vision but two bachelors and a spinster in the throes of midlife crisis.

To compare this production to community theater is to do community theater a disservice. Almost any theater group could have drawn on more resources in researching their production, or at least had more fun with it than the Back Renters seem to be having. Every aspect of this production indicates that the Playwrights' Center is embarrassed to be doing it. Audiences would be advised to relieve them of their discomfort.

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