To Simonize means to coat with wax, and that’s an appropriate description of what Neil Simon did with a selection of Chekhov short stories when he dramatized them in “The Good Doctor.” Even though some of the pieces are straightforward adaptations of the Russian master’s tales, they shimmer with a coat of extra pathos. At this Pasadena Playhouse revival, director Stephanie Shroyer has thrown in another coat for free, resulting in a glossy production that moves smoothly and is easy enough to take, but has no traction whatsoever.
The host of this anthology of short plays is a writer who’s a lot like Chekhov, a lot like Simon, and a lot like the character Trigorin from Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Played with a nice, relaxed touch by Harry Groener, the writer sets the easygoing tone for the evening. Groener also occasionally sheds this persona to enter into some of the tales, alongside a versatile and talented ensemble of actors.
Shroyer struggles with the first two pieces. “The Sneeze,” about a bureaucrat (Time Winters) who “splatters” on his boss at the theater and then can’t let the incident go, lacks a proper build, starting off on too goofy a note and leaving no room for this character piece to develop.
Next comes “The Governess,” in which a young woman refuses to stand up for herself as her employer, played with excellent command by Michael Learned, rips her off. But Shroyer here really seems to misinterpret the title character of the piece, played with way too much self-pity by Marita Geraghty.
The evening picks up with the slapstick skit “Surgery,” executed with professional precision by Groener and Raye Birk, who stands out among this ensemble for the consistent specificity of his character portrayals.
But even Birk and Learned can’t make palatable the musical interlude called “Too Late for Happiness,” where two lonely seniors fail to say what both are thinking. Chekhov’s subtly poignant way with what characters leave unsaid is here converted into saccharine.
The first act does conclude on a high note, however, with “The Seduction,” in which Groener plays a womanizer who engages an unwitting husband, which Winters plays with just the right cluelessness, in the seduction of his own wife. It’s the only piece that manages to be affecting and humorous when it hits the clever dramatic twist at the end.
The second act never improves upon “The Seduction” but is overall more consistent in quality.
There are two outright comic pieces: “The Drowned Man,” a funny take on the borders of acceptable simulation, and “A Defenseless Creature,” in which an apparently helpless older woman (Learned) asks a banker (Birk) for help, and then won’t take no for an answer. These alternate with two more emotional sketches, most notably “The Audition,” where Geraghty has a chance to excel in a finely structured monologue.
Gary Wissmann’s set design makes use of pastel-colored, pseudo-Impressionist backdrops to represent the various locations, never attempting to establish any genuine reality. This same sense of conscious fakeness pervades the entire production. This is a clear choice, but one that gives the whole show a pale, extremely mild feeling. It’s akin to visiting a wax museum: It’s lifelike, but not at all lively.