It's been said that the proper role of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But in recent years, the American media has followed the federal government in turning that dictum inside out, supporting the wealthy against the predations of the working class. If only Molière were here to answer those bellowing McMansioned blowhards and add a new character to his murderer's row of social weasels: the hypocrite (Tartuffe), the retrograde cynic (Alceste in The Misanthrope), and the obsessed hypochondriac, Argan, in The Imaginary Invalid.
Happily, Beck Center is offering a captivating if frequently cacophonous production of the latter, adapted and directed by Molière mensch Timothy Mooney (of the deliciously titled one-person performance Molière Than Thou). By translating the original into rhyming couplets, some of them decidedly contemporary, Mooney has created an arch anachronism -- call it 17th-century Versailles-era satire performed with the subtlety of a Three's Company episode. The result is a broad yet fascinating frolic in the elegant bedroom of an apparently entirely healthy aristocrat who lives for one exotic medical treatment after another.
These treatments usually involve an herb-spiked enema, a bloodletting, or a purging by emetic (e.g., syrup of Ipecac). The medical profession of the time appears to have been entirely focused on draining the body of whatever fluids could be encouraged to exit the anatomy, under any provocation. As for Argan, his sphincter apparently never met a nozzle it didn't adore. As the play opens, he is tabulating the costs of his "injections" and determining how best to undercut the physician's prices for the butt-gushers he demands.
Although the play has a rather singular colon-related focus, it is leavened to some degree by the romantic attachment between Argan's daughter, Angelique, and a young nobody named Cleante. This is a problem for Pops, since he prefers her to marry Thomas, a local doctor, from whom he can cadge some invoice-free intestine-hosings. Refereeing this farcical fandango is Argan's uppity maid, Toinette, who makes no bones about what an ass her master is and inserts herself into virtually every discussion. When Thomas regales the assembled with his medical mumbo-jumbo, Toinette observes, "Would he practice as well as he preaches/The whole world will want him nosing in their breeches."
Under Mooney's sprightly direction, the cast surfs across his metered dialogue and creates a humorous collision that explodes in the second act. This is when Jeffrey Grover appears as Argan's doctor, Monsieur Purgon, and, in front of doubters, presents an impassioned defense of his procedures ("I can't believe the cheek/To block the passage which I look to leak!"). Toinette, played with untrammeled enthusiasm by Tracee Patterson, also shows up disguised as a wacko visiting physician (picture Groucho Marx cross-bred with Lily Tomlin) to try to break through Argan's medical monomania. Nothing works until Argan is convinced to play dead, so he can discover who really cares for him.
The largely capable cast is anchored by Matthew Wright as Argan, in a stellar performance that blends his character's enthusiasm for sickness with his exhaustion from the remedies he must endure. Perhaps the funniest sight gag is when his aptly named enema-giver, Monsieur Fleurant (a distressingly scruffy Allen Branstein), shows up to administer his client's scheduled flush & fill. The apparatus the technician carries -- a large bag with a lengthy hose ending in an applicator tip that looks like the flame-darkened casing of a jet engine -- would be enough to send any sentient human being screaming for the exit.
Michelle Ehrman is a bit too doggedly delightful as Angelique, swooning over Mark Genszler's Cleante, while Noah Varness, as the stiff and buffoonish Thomas, huffs with indignation. Michelle Michael and Robert Hawkes are strong as, respectively, Argan's unfaithful wife, Beline, and his refreshingly rational brother, Beralde. While some of the subplots are never fully developed, including an affair between Beline and notary Bonnefoy (David Bugherr), the main story clicks along with certainty.
In this handsome production (faux marble set by Don McBride, lush costumes by Jeffrey Smart), director Mooney has also included Molière's interludes, comic ballets that infuse the performance with the spirit of commedia dell'arte. In the second-act opener, John Stuehr is a stitch as an old woman trying to give a young romantic lout his comeuppance. Stuehr reappears in the finale as the president of a physician panel, to which Argan applies to become a doctor himself (so he can prescribe his own booty blasts). Although this scene is played too ominously to be the celebration of foolishness that's intended, it's one small misstep in a diverting evening of laughter, slapstick, and commentary on the grotesque foibles of the powerful in any society.
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