Theater review: `The Imaginary Invalid’

ACT’s Imaginary Invalid suffers comedy ills
Two stars Broken funny bone

There was abundant laughter in the house when American Conservatory Theater opened a new adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid. Unfortunately for me, the laughs were not mine.

This kind of period comedy – part 17th-century commedia, part contemporary romp – has become an ACT hallmark. Think of the company’s Tartuffe or The Gamester, both hugely enjoyable, hilarious productions.

The trouble with this Invalid (such an appropriate name) is the play itself. Written in 1673, this was Moliere’s last play, and there’s a sense of exhaustion in it. The comedy, involving a rich hypochondriac trying to marry his beautiful daughter off to a doctor, is tame, and the satire of the medical profession fairly dull.

Director Ron Lagomarsino (who did such wonderful things with The Gamester) is working with a new translation/adaptation by Constance Congdon, who really has done the play no favors by thinning its roster of characters to the bare essentials and stuffing it full of anachronistic dialogue that never melds with the classical structure.

Even at two hours, the play feels padded and – here’s the real comedy killer – forced.

The idea is to jump into this frothy French world and just enjoy the zaniness and various plot tangles. And though there are certainly things to enjoy here, the frothiness feels weighted and the zaniness comes across more as annoyance.

John Apicella is the titular invalid, Argan, a typically misanthropic, miserly Moliere leading man whose character is defined by his psychosis, which, in this case, is his obsession with his pulse, his liver, his spleen and, most importantly, his flatulence.

Scatological humor plays a big part in these proceedings. One character’s last name, de Aria, is pronounced “diarrhea,’’ and a swift insult comes in the form of: “a consummate dumb ass with poop for brains.’’

When poop and fart jokes aren’t actually funny, there’s a problem.

What we have here is a beautiful production of a mediocre play. Erik Flatmo’s set tilts to one side, a common design device to convey a world askew. And Beaver Bauer’s gorgeous costumes are often a whole lot funnier than the characters themselves.

In fact, by the time ACT core company members Gregory Wallace and Steven Anthony Jones show up as a doctor and his strange son, the comedy boat has pretty much sailed, and we’re left to admire their costumes and especially their towering wigs. But by the time Wallace (whose nerdy character looks like a cross between Urkel and Lena Horne) is squawking like a chicken, we realize these fine actors have had better stage opportunities.

Anthony Fusco plays two characters – a money-grubbing notary and an enema specialist – and though his performance is perfectly fine, he’s not nearly as funny as his costumes, wigs and props (you don’t even want to know about the green slime that comes out of his giant enema device).

Apicella’s Argan is more enervating than funny. His hypochondriacal paranoia is perhaps a little too real, and his sudden transformation at the end beyond the realm of believability, even for a slight comedy.

What pleasures there are come from Jud Williford’s sturdy turn as Cleante, a vigorous suitor for the hand of Argan’s daughter, Angelique, played with twitterpated beauty by Allison Jean White (coming to the end of her year-long stint as a core company member).

Williford and White have the right comic attitude, and their interactions buoy the proceedings considerably, especially their improvised opera in Act 2. Williford is an especially adept physical comedian, so he seems to inhabit a much livelier world than the other characters.

Core company member Rene Augesen has moments as evil stepmother Beline, but it’s a one-note mercenary character that quickly grows tiresome.

Nancy Dussault plays Toinette, the beleaguered maid. She’s adorable in her bouncy red wig, and she’s a peppy presence onstage, often garnering more laughs than her compatriots. But what is supposed to be a show-stopping tour de force in Act 2 when she plays two characters at once, fell surprisingly flat on opening night.

There’s a half-hearted attempt to add original songs (Fabian Obispo provides music, Congdon the lyrics), but if these actors can actually sing, they have been prevented from doing so by misguided direction. The songs are along the lines of sing-talking Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche, but they aren’t quite the spoonful of sugar needed to make this comic medicine go down.

For information about ACT’s The Imaginary Invalid, visit

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