BEAUMONT, Texas — The theater is rocked by the sound of a loud sneeze, droplets splattering the back of an unsuspecting head. But don’t worry, we are told, it’s not a real sneeze.
And so live theater returns to Beaumont with Lamar University’s production of “The Good Doctor.” Director Joel Grothe, and the fine ensemble, interject references to the pandemic that still grips the world outside of the black box. The chance to laugh in the company of socially-distanced others is perfect escapism.
Written by Neil Simon (“The Odd Couple”), “The Good Doctor” comprises eight playlets based on short stories by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov — and anyone who has ever met me for five minutes knows my love for my boy Anton. Chekhov has a keen eye for the absurdity of the human condition and Simon is a great writer of verbal gags, and Grothe has encouraged his cast to lean into the satire and add several levels of silliness that had the small (COVID restricted) opening-night audience laughing out loud.
There are several sight gags and comments sprinkled into the text that nod to the pandemic without distracting from the play. The play was chosen for practical reasons, Grothe said, as it offered the chance for small groups to rehearse safely while still offering opportunities for 11 actors. The work put in by the actors shows.
The source material is excellent, giving each actor a moment to shine. It is tempting to pick a favorite, but in all honesty, every scene has moments to reflect on, a sure sign of an evening well spent.
Reece Smithhart plays the narrator, a stand-in for Chekhov, who, he tells us, struggles to find inspiration for his stories among weighty tradition of Russian novelists such as Tolstoy and Turgenyev. He worries his stories have no substance and are simply charming. Smithhart does a fine job as he worries and frets to the audience.
Hayden Colichia ramps up the comedy with a delightfully over-the-top performance in “The Sneeze,” as Cherdyakov, who worries about what his boss thinks of him. During a visit to the theater with his wife (Dominique Roman) an accidental sneeze sets him on a hilariously manic downward spiral of his own making.
Brianna Cobos plays The Mistress, a seemingly cruel boss to Julie, her children’s governess (Rachel Ogburn), in “The Governess.” Typically, the twist reveals much about the expectations of Russia’s lower classes.
Lana Jeffcoat and Josie Landry’s two-hander, “Surgery,” gives the two actors a chance for physical comedy that both attack with a gleeful gusto that is obviously as much fun to perform as it is to watch.
“The Seduction” is a clever piece of writing that is well acted. Kalan Bonnette plays Peter, who is full of self-confidence in his ability to woo women. With the help of the hapless Husband (Aaron McClendon), Peter arrogantly tells us, step by step, how he can win Wife (excellently played by Ginger Mouton). It is clever and amusing, with much to say about the allure of the “bad boy.”
Mouton returns in “The Drowned Man,” with the Narrator taking a lead in one of his own stories. It is a clever piece that shines a comedic light on the plight of the poor just trying to earn a living.
Of particular interest to Chekhov fans is “The Audition,” about a girl (Landry) who walks from Odessa for a chance to be in a play written by The Voice (McClendon). She is needy, desperate and, frankly, a little annoying. The Voice of the playwright is not impressed. Then she auditions. It’s a moment that Chekhov fans will appreciate and enjoy. Landry does a great job switching back and forth throughout the scene in a deceptively complex role.
Jeffcoat returns in “A Defenseless Creature,” hilariously playing off Deion Berry’s bank manager in a scene where she is clearly anything but defenseless. Jeffcoat’s Woman uses every trick in the book to get what she wants, and she’s not bothered where she gets it from (she has already visited five previous departments — the joys of bureaucracy). As in “Surgery,” Jeffcoat is not afraid of physical comedy and Berry is a perfect partner as she wears him down, both physically and emotionally.
The show concludes with “The Arrangement,” which find Bonnette’s Father taking his Son (Colichia) to a Woman (Cobos) for his 19th birthday. This will make a man out of him (if you catch my drift). Maturity is not a question of age, as Father finds out.
Honestly, the relief of being able to visit a theater for the first time in more than a year meant that I was pre-disposed to enjoy anything I saw. So, what a pleasure to be able to report “The Good Doctor” is an engaging, clever and funny distraction from COVID. Theater is a cure for what ails us — for a couple of hours at least.
Performances continue Feb. 27 and 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15. For reservations, visit lamar.edu/theatre