A few miles west of Ann Arbor, the town of Chelsea sits snuggled into the landscape with brick buildings and old-fashioned streetlights along its main drag. Even its industry seems picturesque, as the century-old Chelsea Milling Company — home of Jiffy mixes — greets passers-by with a giant blue-and-white corn cake box painted on the factory tower. On a crisp, fall night, one has the sense that this enclave exists outside of time.
In a world of reality TV and predictable sitcoms, Chelsea is the perfect place to sit back and enjoy live theater. And that magic wasn’t lost on actor and former Chelsea resident Jeff Daniels who returned to establish his Purple Rose Theatre more than a decade ago. It’s a place to expect some of the best theater the Midwest has to offer. Usually, at least. Unfortunately, this season’s inaugural offering, The Good Doctor by Neil Simon — a series of sketches based on the early work of Anton Chekhov — falls short of the theater’s reputation.
The production, which is a late replacement for Daniels’ yet-to-be-finished The Fabulous Farkleberrys, does not want for talent or resources. The cast is almost entirely Equity, and the members have impressive credits under their belts. The set is gorgeous; a movable stage travels out into the audience and a fog machine conjures up seaside ports and old Russian streets.
It’s just that, for a company dedicated to thrusting underexposed playwrights and great American work into the public eye, the Purple Rose chose a play packed with cheap one-liners that director Guy Sanville might as well have set to canned laughter. It’s situation comedy without the TV screen.
We open on the narrator (Tom Whalen) doing a strange combination of a soft-shoe and a Cossack dance (because all Russians — including Chekhov — are Cossack dancers?). The narrator is Chekhov as seen through the lens of Simon. He speaks on his drive to write, then guides us through several of his scene ideas. And Whalen plays the part with a mischievous charm.
It’s when the play launches into “The Sneeze” that things become overly slapstick. Cherdyakov (Ryan Carlson) sneezes on the head of an important man (Paul Hopper) while seated behind him at a play. Carlson’s portrayal of Cherdyakov is gymnastic. He shakes, bumbles, cartwheels. Imagine Chris Farley doing Simon doing Chekhov — it’s too much. And while he does a really nice turn as a red-faced boy awaiting his father’s birthday gift of a prostitute in “The Arrangement,” most of Carlson’s characters come off as parodies of themselves — even by Simon standards.
Some of the sketches work. A mistress (Sandra Birch) matter-of-factly steals money from her hired governess (Molly Thomas). It’s a witty scene, wittily acted. Thomas is also responsible for a touching portrayal of an overeager, aspiring actress — who surprises us with the fact that she really can act.
But then, you’ve got a loony woman (Terry Heck) pulling a rubber chicken out of her bag, screaming and waving her arms around to sucker a man named Kistunov (Hopper) out of money. Heck’s portrayal feels forced, simply to induce a few yuk-yuks. The play suffers from these moments.
Simon himself has said these pieces really aren’t a play: “There are sketches, vaudeville scenes, if you will, written with my non-consenting collaborator, Anton Chekhov. Not the Chekhov of The Sea Gull and The Three Sisters, but the young man who wrote humorous articles for the newspapers to pay his way through medical school.”
Strung together as one long work, however, things feel too disjointed — especially with the singular, odd musical number “Too Late for Happiness.”
All the elements are in place for the highly professional company to continue drawing attention to great American theater, exposing little-known work in the process. They’ve done it before and certainly they’ll do it again.
Scheduled next is the world premiere of Leaving Iowa (by Tim Clue and Spike Manton) in January; in April, it’s the Michigan premiere of The Underpants, Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s classic farce.
In the meantime, if you’ve got a long drive to get to Chelsea, be sure to grab dinner while you’re in town. For all its promise, The Good Doctor simply isn’t that filling.
See The Good Doctor through Dec. 20 at the Purple Rose Theatre, Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 3 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets $22.50-$32.50. The Purple Rose Theatre is at 137 Park St., Chelsea; call 734-433-ROSE or go to purplerosetheatre.org.Kari Jones writes about performing arts for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]