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by Adrian Buckle

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Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

Author:   Neil Simon

Venue:   St James Cavalier

Dates:   8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17 April 2005

Director:   John Suda

Cast:   John Suda, Elsa Romei, Maria Buckle, Philip Stilon, Alexandra Camilleri Warne, Luka Desira Buttigieg

SYNOPSIS: Neil Simon’s comedy is based on the vignettes of Anton Chekhov’s The Good Doctor. Anton Chekhov and Neil Simon are not exactly a pairing that immediately strikes one as inspired. After all, one is a 19th century Russian who laid bare humanity’s deepest yearnings and foibles in poignant dramatic plays, while the other is a 20th century American who exposed the follies and neuroses of modern urban life in tightly crafted, one-liner-littered comedic plays. Joined together, they seem less natural peers in world theatre and more like the hapless heroes in a Simon masterwork: The Odd Couple. And yet, the two share a bond from when they were young writers: comedic sketches.

What the papers said:

 

A strong cast took on a variety of roles, as each story required a new set of characters. Some actors were required to shift into very different characterisations and moved smoothly through this. Louise Ghirlando, The Times, 23/04/05

This play was surprising. It was highly enjoyable without compromising quality, aided by the particularly strong performances of John Suda, who was also director, and Philip Stilon. Louise Ghirlando, The Times, 23/04/05

Comic pastiche at its best. Noemi Zarb, The Times, 27/04/05

It is always refreshing when a new theatre company makes an appearance. It is even more invigorating when that company sets out its stall with a quality production. - Jon Rosser, Showtime, 01/05/05

At this point, as Maria Buckle staged the actress reading out her lines from Chekhov's own The Three Sisters, a stilling energy took over the St James theatre as Ms Buckle captured the mesmerising effectiveness of this audition. - Louise Ghirlando, Lifestyle Section, The Times, 23/04/05

 

SHOULD WE BE LAUGHING?

Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor (Unifaun at St James Cavalier) is a clever collection of playlets based on early short stories written by the great Anton P. Chekhov.  Apart from being a fairly successful medical doctor, Chekhov wrote much for a living and in his early career depended heavily on his earnings from his writings to live fairly comfortably.  The stories selected by Simon are all fairly short ones, all of them amusing (even if one of them at least is not really funny) but at the same time they present to us individuals suffering mental or physical pain.  John Suda, who has directed this production as well as doing much of the acting, asks us not to feel guilty if we catch ourselves laughing at the characters; human beings tend to laugh at the most unlikely of situations.

 

The show is introduced by a Writer (Suda himself in the part) who is a combination of Chekhov and Simon and sometimes reminded me of Trigorin in “The seagull”.  For him all that happens to him is potential material for his writings and at one point, when introducing one of the playlets (Drowning man) he is tortured because he is experiencing writer’s block.  The Writer comments lightly but never flippantly on the characters he allows us to see.  Suda does this with the ease and utter confidence born of his impressively long performing experience.  A break in the voice, a pregnant pause, an eyebrow arched wryly often speaks more than the dialogue Simon has written, and when Suda slides from being the Writer to impersonating one of his own creations, his skill becomes even more evident.

 

Perhaps the best example of this comes when the Writer speaks about a famous Russian Don Juan who has seduced many a married woman (singles do not interest him as yet) using a special technique, and then tells us casually that he will serve as the instrument for presenting this Lover to us. From being a delicately amused commentator, he becomes the cynical Lover himself whom he plunges into the opening of his campaign to seduce the latest woman he has in mind, the wife of a good friend of his.  His technique is to make the husband do all the work for him, relaying to his pretty wife all the compliments the Lover has made her in her absence - with her he has no direct communication at all.  His campaign is successful but victory is snatched from him at the last moment because he has never reckoned on dealing with a woman who, though crazy about him, still loves her husband.

 

Another interesting twist comes at the end of another piece, “The Governess”, perhaps the most gripping of the set, the main role played this time not by Suda but by Elsa Romei, another veteran still at the peak of her powers.  Romei plays a well-to-do lady who summons her children’s governess, a timid person (played just right by Alexandra Camilleri Warne) in order to pay her wages, and subjects her to ten minutes of mental torture as she comes up with one excuse after another to deduct substantial sums from the girl’s money.  The cruelty of her statements coupled with the geneiality of her expression made the scene excruciating for me and nearly led me to cry out my exasperation.  Even the ending, which is unexpectedly happy, scarcely sufficed to calm me down.  Despite the person’s eminently good intentions, her “educational” technique remained unforgivable.

 

Romei plays another very exasperating woman in the ironically named “The defenceless creature”, but the intentions this time are not good at all.  Here she is a woman whose husband, she is convinced, is owed some twenty roubles by his firm and who decides to get them by hook or by crook from a banker who has absolutely no connection with the case.  The banker (Philip Stilon at his best in this piece) suffers from the gout as well as from some nervous disease, and is unable to cope with the woman’s mixture of triumphant illogicality and terrifying determination.  Here, as in a couple of other pieces, Suda’s direction trespasses into farce on occasion, but the scene as a whole built up to the woman’s victory relentlessly.

 

Stilon’s rather dim and imperceptive husband in “The seduction”raised our smiles as he carried out the tasks he had been programmed to do by the seducer and suggested to us the honest personality with which his wife is still in love in spite of his deficiencies as a lover.  I did not like him, however, in the two pieces that had the house in a roar sometimes, “The sneeze” and “Surgery”.  The former is about a civil servant who unluckily sneezes over his ministerial boos during a show at the theatre, a sneeze that becomes an obsession with him to the point where he fails to realise how lightly the incident has impinged on the Minister’s consciousness, and leads him to pester the Minister (Michael Tabone as a far from aristocratic but powerful administrator) until an explosion inevitably occurs, and the sneezer just dies of a broken heart - though Neil Simon mischievously suggests an outrageous alternative happy ending.  Here Stilon is directed to play the sneezer over the top, an overdone grotesque, whereas he is really a semi-tragic little fellow who is not funny at all.  Only what has happened to him is amusing.

 

Here and in “Surgery” Suda tries to get our laughs with the techniques of broad comedy, even introducing brief slow motion sequences that just do not fit in with Simon’s style.  In this piece, Stilon’s incompetent dentist’s assistant is also played for laughs, and is actually outplayed by Michael Tabone as his victim, who got my laughs without trying too hard for them.

 

Maria Buckle, a new face, cannot really cope with “The audition|” in which she plays a talented amateur auditioning for a professional part, and her recitation of the heart-rending closing speeches from Chekhov’s “The three sisters” should never have persuaded the director to give her the part she is looking for.  She is more persuasive as the tempted wife in “The seducation”, though even here a more experienced actress would have played with much more subtlety.

 

The show ends with the gently amusing and faintly touching “The arrangement” in which Suda plays a father who thinks he is being wise when he tries to give his teenage son (Luke Desira Buttigieg) an unusual birthday gift: an introduction to sex at the local brothel.  Desira Buttigieg plays the son as a timid young man, scared stiff by the thought of sleeping with a woman, but it is a remark he makes to his father about the impending loss of his innocence that makes the latter suddently change his mind, forget his worldly wisdom, and lead the son off before he commits the deed.  Here again Suda’s maturity both as a man and as an actor brings the scene and the show to an excellent end.

 

Paul Xuereb, The Sunday Times, 16/04/2005

John Suda as the Good DoctorCherdiakhov and wife

  Toothache!Getting ready for the Bearded Countess

The Bank.
The sinker.

The honest prostitute.

pictures by Joseph A. Borg