Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Good Doctor, Ensemble Theatre

(Bernard and Dorothy Canepari in one of The Good Doctor stories, "The Defenseless Creature.")

There are three shows, produced by three different theater companies, now running simultaneously at the home of the Cleveland Play House. And the score now stands: Froth – 2, Serious Drama – 1.

The Play House production of Around the World in 80 Days is a non-stop gaggle of funny voices and shameless schtick Scotch-taped to a story by Jules Verne. And Blackbird by Dobama Theatre is a scorching view of child abuse viewed at chronological but not emotional distance.

Tipping the scale in favor of mid-winter frivolity, at least under the CPH roof, is The Good Doctor produced by Ensemble Theatre. This is a series of short vignettes—originally, short stories written by Anton Chekhov when he was a young medical student, then subsequently tweaked by comedy genius Neil Simon. The result is a sweet meringue pie with precious little filling and no crust. Indeed, many of the vignettes play like quickie sketches on Saturday Night Live (without any of the nasty bits).

But thanks to the perfect-pitch direction of Jacqi Loewy and a couple strong performances, many of these miniature tales generate warm chuckles if not thigh-slapping guffaws. The evening is narrated by Anton Chekhov himself (an ingratiating John Busser), who self-deprecatingly muses about his destiny and process as a writer.

The cast is led by Bernard Canepari who is in physical pain during two of the most successful stories, once as a man with a toothache at the mercy of a novice dentist and later as a bank manager with gout. In the former instance, titled “Surgery,” Canepari contorts his expressive face as the doltish dentist (Busser) yanks him by the tooth, nearly pulling him across the stage. Sure, it’s an old bit, but it was a lot younger when Anton originally penned it. And what the hell, it still works.

In the latter sketch, “A Defenseless Creature,” Canepari is beset not only by a throbbing foot but by an elderly woman (a wonderfully irritating Dorothy Canepari) who, between screeches of misery and a harping, pecking persistence, drive the banker to give her whatever money she wants, just to be rid of her.

The other efforts in this collection have small flaws that dim but don’t entirely extinguish the pleasures to be had. In “The Sneeze,” a paranoid young clerk turns himself inside out after sneezing on the head of his superior at a theater. But John Gellott’s amateurish line readings as the young man interrupt the comic flow. In “The Governess,” a miserly mistress duns her hired help for everything from a broken saucer to a runny nose, reducing the employee’s compensation almost to nothing. That part is lovely, but the ensuing reversal doesn’t work, humorously or otherwise.

In “The Audition,” Eileen Canepari as a desperate actress seeking an audition is excellent, but the bit falls flat when there is no comedic payoff to her ultimately well-rehearsed reading. Another story ripe with potential is “The Arrangement” featuring a nervous 19-year-old Chekhov (here, Gellott’s stiffness works for him) and his father (Busser) who wants to help him grow up with the help of a hooker (E. Canepari). But the story ends with father and son walking away before the erotic event, a perhaps realistic but unfulfilling conclusion.

Played on a bare stage in period clothing, this is a spare yet cozy and endearing production. And it serves as a fitting tribute to the person who chose the play, Ensemble co-founder and artistic director Lucia Colombi, who passed away ten days before opening night.

The Good Doctor
Through February 1, produced by
Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-321-2930

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