Of all of Neil Simon's award-winning plays, "The Good Doctor" - despite a multiple Tony-nominated Broadway debut in the early 1970s - is the one that has perhaps been most unfairly forgotten.
In fact, when Cresson Lake Play-house decided to produce Simon's tribute to the works of the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, even the play's eventual director wasn't very familiar with it.
"I had heard of it," said director Rachel Wagner.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Jonathan O’Harrow of Altoona performs some intense dentistry on Rich Volpe, also of Altoona, in 'The Good Doctor.'
But when she sat down with the work, she found a work she really liked.
"It's a great concept," Wagner, 28, of Cresson, said. "Neil Simon, who everyone loved and was familiar with, made a combination of his style and Chekhov's style. The same kind of humor comes out in both of their styles."
Above all, "The Good Doctor," which will be presented at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2-3, and Sept. 6-10 and 2 p.m. Sept. 4, is a comedy - though what kind of comedy changes from moment to moment.
If you go
What: "The Good Doctor"
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2-3, and Sept. 6-10 and 2 p.m. Sept. 4
Where: Cresson Lake Playhouse, Loretto
Tickets: $17 for adults, $10 for students younger than 18 with school ID
"Some of it is almost kind of slapsticky physical humor, but some of it is more intellectual, where the characters don't even know they're doing anything funny," Wagner said. "There's a really broad range of comedy."
Simon produced "The Good Doctor" in 1973, a decade before he would write his seminal "Eugene Trilogy" ("Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound"). The play is set in 19th-century Russia and consists of a series of vignettes, based on a series of Chekhov short stories, linked by the character of "The Writer" - a thinly veiled version of Chekhov himself.
"There is the character of the Writer who is played by Jonathan O'Harrow," Wagner explained. "It begins in the Writer's study and as he comes up with these stories, they come alive in his [room]."
O'Harrow, 33, of Altoona, was also familiar with just the title of Simon's play before Cresson Lake chose the piece for this season. But when he read it, he found a production which would give him a change from the musical roles he is known for in the area.
He was also drawn to the style of humor on display.
"Chekhov found a lot of humor in human beings' inability to talk to each other," O'Harrow said. "People never really hear what the other people say. A lot of comic stories come from that miscommunication."
But that doesn't mean the problem is solved by the finale, he said.
"[Chekhov] prided himself on how his stories kind of ended where they began."
The production has just five people in its small cast - O'Harrow, Rich Volpe, Susan Brandt and Julie Settle, all of Altoona, and Sam Wagner, of Cresson - requiring all actors to play several roles. It's quite a grueling piece, according to their director.
"It's definitely a lot of work for them," Rachel Wagner said. "They have to work at developing a ton of different characters and memorizing a ton of dialogue. But I'm blessed with working with just a fantastic group of actors."
Knowing the many vignettes in the piece could get confusing for the performers, Wagner had scheduled a long rehearsal period. To her surprise, she didn't need it.
"[The cast] have really exceeded my expectations," she said. "I had planned on spending a lot more time on each scene, and they haven't needed it."
The cast is well-prepared, according to O'Harrow.
"Rehearsals have been great," he said. "I think we're in a good place."
Knowing that "The Good Doctor" has low recognition, Elaine Mastalski, Cresson Lake's executive director, has been trying to get the word out about the upcoming production.
"I've been on Facebook and putting it out there in commercials and posters throughout central Pennsylvania," she said.
Those that make it to the show are in for a good time, Mastalski explained.
"It's a funny, funny show," she said. "Something that makes you feel good and is just pure, simple entertainment is an evening well-spent in this time of constant turmoil."
Wagner, too, believes the show will be a crowd-pleaser.
"We have a small crew that's been working with us at each rehearsal and we just have people in stitches every night - even though they've seen it over and over again," she said. "So I think when we get a fresh audience in here, they're going to love it."
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.