Jewel Box Theatre takes on Neil Simon’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, The Good Doctor 

Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple pits roommates with opposing attitudes about cleanliness against each other, creating comedic sparks from the friction. As the TV adaptation of the hit Broadway play and movie famously asked in its introduction, “Can two grown men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?” Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, meanwhile, is an intense meditation on jealousy and unrequited love famous for inspiring and fulfilling the writer’s maxim “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.”

Simon’s The Good Doctor, playing at Jewel Box Theatre through March 25 and not to be confused with the current medical drama of the same name, offers an odd couple of its own: Tony-winning comedic playwright Simon adapting several short stories written by Russian author Chekhov. Though the two writers don’t initially seem to have much in common, director Richard Lemin said he thinks Simon felt a kinship with Chekhov because though both are celebrated, they were often overshadowed by their contemporaries.

“It turns out that during his lifetime, Mr. Chekhov was apparently not very appreciated by the other writers,” Lemin said. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, Chekhov is fine, he’s charming, he’s clever, but [Fathers and Sons author Ivan] Turgenev is better. And Neil Simon kind of felt the same way. He had hit after hit on Broadway, but the critics always said, ‘Oh, he’s good, but he’s no Woody Allen,’ and they compared him to other authors. And I think he just had this affinity for Chekhov, and Chekhov had some of these really bizarre little stories, and Simon simply took the original stories and kind of mainstreamed them for an American audience.”

click to enlarge David Patterson, Deborah Franklin and Chip Chappelle star in Jewel Box Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor. | Photo James Beckel / provided
  • David Patterson, Deborah Franklin and Chip Chappelle star in Jewel Box Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor. | Photo James Beckel / provided

Challenging surprises

Lemin, who has been working with Jewel Box since 1983, has his own affinity for Simon. While casting the original production of The Good Doctor in 1973, recent widower Simon met actress Marsha Mason who would be his wife for the next decade. Lemin, while directing Simon’s The Star-Spangled Girl for Jewel Box, met actress Deborah Franklin, whom he married in 1986 and recently cast in the upcoming production of The Good Doctor. Lemin, who has directed or acted in productions of several of Simon’s plays, said the playwright has a gift for finding the humor in potentially sad circumstances.

“I think Neil Simon, despite the fact that he is a master at crafting jokes, he really does get down to what really affects people’s lives,” Lemin said. “You’ve got people who are struggling with ordinary things, and instead of being incredibly tragic, they turn out to be very funny.”

A key to understanding the connection between Simon and Chekhov, Lemin said, is expressed by The Good Doctor’s title character, the narrator and a stand-in for Chekhov, who worked as a physician for much of his life. It’s a role Lemin once played himself.

“The writer talks about at one point, ‘One of the things that people laugh at, I’ve never understood this, is people laugh at pain,’” Lemin said. “But the reason people laugh at pain is because somebody else is suffering, and they’re laughing because it’s not them. So that’s kind of one of the things I think underlies all of Chekhov’s works and this particular work with Neil Simon. He’s just taking ordinary situations and showing how absurd they can be if you take them to that conclusion.”

The title role will be played by Don Taylor in the upcoming production, and Franklin, Karen Garlitz, Chris Harris, John Ferguson, Chip Chappelle, Clint Kubat, Shep Edwards, David Patterson, Amandanell Bold and Allyson Rose, who also serves as assistant director, round out the cast. Most of the actors play at least two different roles throughout the play’s nine scenes, Lemin said, and the nature of the production requires a minimalistic approach because the Jewel Box’s layout does not allow for sets to be rapidly redressed for each new setting.

“To me, the actual biggest challenge is the fact that there can’t be any scenery,” Lemin said, “because the scenes change every 10 or 15 minutes, this is basically just the actors and maybe a chair or table and then their talent.”

Though Chekhov’s most famous plays — Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull — are intense dramatic works examining depression and despair, Lemin said the author’s short stories, which Simon used as the basis of The Good Doctor, are typically lighter-hearted works more comparable to the stories of O. Henry, albeit with a darker sensibility.

“There is what they call the Chekhovian twist in every one of the stories,” Lemin said. “In fact, the very first scene in The Good Doctor is a scene called “The Sneeze,” and it’s about a young man who commits a faux pas — he actually sneezes on somebody in public, but the problem is in his mind, he can’t let it go. He keeps thinking about it over and over and over again, and it keeps growing and growing and growing until it literally drives him crazy. And that’s the twist at the end when the writer says, ‘And here’s how this all resolved itself,’ and the audience just gasps and thinks, ‘Oh no. That’s so weird. You never would have saw that coming.’”

Print headline: Simon-izing Chekhov; Jewel Box Theatre takes on Neil Simon’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, The Good Doctor.

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