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The Good Doctor

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Athenaeum Theatre Company.

Neil Simon could mine a happy ending from the rockiest of tragedies. But the nine short stories by Chekhov that went into his adaptation The Good Doctor require more than laughs: most of the pieces are premised entirely on some authority figure (a dentist, government supervisor, aristocratic lady) bullying a squirming subordinate (patient, assistant clerk, governess), so infusing these works with compassion is important.

Athenaeum director Tom Quinn opts for an establishmentarian interpretation, however, consistently presenting the overlords far more sympathetically than the underlings. Even in the story in which a woman bent on securing her invalid husband's pension so harasses a hapless bank officer that he surrenders to her incomprehensible demands simply to have her gone, the wife is portrayed as a revolting, hypocritical pest (with a foreign accent, yet), and the bureaucrat as a meek and courteous gentleman doing his job as best he can.

The six members of the cast attack their 26 roles with enthusiasm, if not subtlety--broad characterizations work to the advantage of the more slapstick sketches (though a Daffy Duck accent is going too far) but stifle the poignancy of the serious narratives. Still, Tim Dienes's toothachy friar and Kate Kzeski's waterfront entertainer are inventive, and Jan Wiezorek's narrator exudes charm (though he tends to overdo it when playing a character). The lack of subtextual revelation was of no apparent consequence to the opening-night audience, which guffawed explosively at anything remotely resembling a gag.

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