Woody Weingarten

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Junior college finds laughs in Neil Simon’s take on Chekhov

[Woody’s Rating: ★★½☆☆

Riley Craig plays the writer (aka Anton Chekhov) and Lorelei Voegels the wife in the Santa Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Department’s production of “The Good Doctor.” Photo by Thomas Chown.

I couldn’t help but laugh aloud at Haley Hollis’ over-the-top screaming, full-throated coughing and feint fainting.

Her comic talents were instantly obvious as she portrayed an off-the-wall “defenseless” wife desperately trying to coerce rubles out of a resistant banker.

For me, that clearly was the highlight of the San Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Department’s production of “The Good Doctor,” a Neil Simon adaptation of unconnected Anton Chekhov short stories.

And considering the horrific, tension-filled state of U.S. politics these days, it answered the question of how much Simon’s non-political slapstick, physical comedy and one-liners are needed more now than ever.

The few moments of pathos his words evoked weren’t bad either.

Nor was the Russian/Jewish folk music on mandolin and violin by musical director Gus Garelick (who sported a black cap, checked red shirt and black pants tucked into high black boots that combined to give him a decided Tevya look) preceding, following and accompanying those words.

The set-up: Simon overcomes a writing block that’s struck Chekhov — who’s actually not mentioned by name in the script but labeled “the writer” — and then reimagines the stories.

Which director Wendy Wisely handled as best as she could despite Simon’s narrator intruding now and then on the sometimes sluggish action — and many of the playwright’s phrases not being nearly as pithy or funny here as in other of his creations.

Simon, who died a year ago at age 91, is probably most famous for “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park.” But he penned 47 other plays during his illustrious career, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost in Yonkers.”

The truth is, although I’m rather familiar with his oeuvre, and I did know that Chekhov was a physician (who failed to treat himself and died of tuberculosis at the age of 44), which gives “The Good Doctor” its title, I’d not seen this play before so didn’t quite know what to expect.

My personal chuckle-ometer stopped at “OK but not great,” although the audience at the Newman Auditorium matinee I caught laughed a lot more than I did — especially the kids, who found uproarious the slapstick segments about a civil servant accidentally sneezing on his supervisor’s neck, a dental student messing up a tooth extraction, and a sailor who wants to be paid to conduct a faux drowning.

While I preferred the “defenseless creature” vignette and one about an inveterate wife seducer, I did respect the amount of work required by all 13 cast members (almost all of whom performed multiple roles), particularly Riley Craig’s taxing role of narrator (aka Chekhov).

Nobody in the cast, in fact, seemed bothered by the fact that they collectively were wearing the worst wigs I’ve seen in ages.

Costuming by Caitlyn Clark, on the other hand, took me right to where it should — the late 19th century that Chekhov (and Simon) depicted.

Aided by the circle dancing and traditional Russian steps tentatively offered by the ensemble.

After being SRJC Theater Arts’ temporary home for two years, Newman Auditorium will give up its theatrical ghosts in favor of the remodeled, $30 million complex that includes a revamped 400-seat Burbank Auditorium and a new 200-seat Studio Theatre this spring.

I presume that acoustics in those venues will be even better than in Newman, where even in the last row I still was able to hear every word.

“The Good Doctor” will play at Newman Auditorium, Emeritus Hall, Elliott Avenue on the SRJC campus., Santa Rosa, through Oct. 13. Evening performances, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets: $5 to $25. For information, contact http://theatrearts.santarosa.edu or 707-527-4307.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.