- The Imaginary Invalid
- By Molière
- Adapted by Alan Drury
- With original music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier
- Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
- Directed by Keith Baxter
- Musical staging by Gillian Lynne
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
All great comics, wherever they are, for whom dignity is not an issue – and I’m thinking specifically about Steve Martin, John Belushi, Benny Hill, Monty Python (collectively), the Three Stooges, Harpo Marx, Harold Lloyd and I know there are many others – should worship at the altar of Molière, who first discovered that there is nothing wrong with pomposity that a good enema won’t cure.
The Shakespeare Theatre’s wonderful production of Molière’s wonderful The Imaginary Invalid has it all – Music! Singing! Acrobats! Ballet! The King of France! And a protagonist who is very, very sick! In fact, M. Argan (Renè Auberjonois) is gravely ill, and has been for many years. Were it not for the constant attention of his brilliant team of physicians, under the leadership of M. Purgon (Drew Eshelman), M. Argan would surely be dead. Perhaps dead several times. There is something wrong with his liver, or his spleen, or some other part of his body depending on who’s doing the diagnosing. It doesn’t really matter, his brilliant physicians are quick to point out, since all body parts are really the same, or so intimately connected that they might as well be the same, or something.
So what can a play which features singing and acrobats and very sick protagonists be about? Don’t be silly: it’s French, and so it’s about love. Specifically, it is about the love Argan’s beautiful daughter Angelique (the marvelous Gia Mora) has for the brave and handsome Cléante (Tony Roach), who has rescued her from some unpleasantness involving a drunk. (In France? Who knew?) Argan frustrates the couple’s pure and blessed course toward matrimony by insisting that his daughter instead marry the ridiculous Thomas Diafoirus (Levi Ben-Israel), a doctor in utero, so that Argan can have a medico in the family to treat his continued grave ailments, presumptively at a discount. Young Thomas is pompous, whiny, given to windy speeches full of classical allusion, with a tendency to snort when nervous, whose idea of a great first date is a dissection – just what you want in a husband, eh? Ben-Israel, by the way, is terrific at all of this, and we are reminded that in Molière, there is no over-the-top.
At the conclusion of introductions (where Angelique learns that it is Thomas or the convent, and departs in tears) Thomas and his cocksure father (John Robert Tillotson) perform an examination gratis on poor Argan, in which they diagnose a series of illness completely at odds with the diagnoses of the great Purgon. Oh, well.
Lest we forget, it is also about the love of Argan’s buxom second wife, Béline (Kaitlin O’Neal) – for Argan’s bank account. Shrewdly recognizing what Argan is really seeking in his hypochondria, Béline coddles him, smothers him with attention (occasionally almost literally asphyxiating the poor man with her buxomness), and weeps copious tears at the thought of her beloved’s discomfort. She also arranges for a notary (Eshelman again) to craft a scheme for Argan to defeat French law and leave his estate to her. The scheme apparently involves transferring large chunks of that estate to the notary.
What’s outstanding about this play? Everything, starting with old pro Auberjonois, who somehow turns this selfish, deluded, disgusting guy, with his hair-trigger bowels and his ratty-looking frock into a character we can find sympathetic. After chasing off an apothecary (David Manis) bringing an enema in a wheeled container large enough for all of Congress, Argan’s brother Béralde (Peter Land) hits upon a solution to Argan’s absorption in his own symptoms (it’s too good to tell here), and we end up feeling satisfied that the old man has come to his senses, addled though they are. Aberjonois deserves the credit for this. He turns Argan into everyone’s beloved, deluded uncle who believes that aliens control the UN but is sweet nonetheless.
But this play also reflects Shakespeare Theatre’s amazing ability to fill a huge cast, top-to-bottom, with outstanding actors who make Alan Drury’s breezy, witty adaptation work. I can’t say enough about Mora, who sings and dances and possesses Lucille Ball-like comic timing. O’Neal, Roach, Tillotson and Eschelman seem as though they had wandered on stage from real life. But there’s more: Do you need an adorable child who can deliver a line with punch and conviction? Why, just trot out Ian Pedersen, and watch him knock them dead. Do you need a pre-teen girl who can give a layered, subtle performance and allow Argan to show his affectionate side? Go get Emily Whitworth, who looks from her photo to be about nine but could be thirty, judged on the basis of her skill. Do you need a physical actor so skilled that he can play identical twin brothers, and then have them get into a fight with each other? Draft Manis for that purpose. Do you want to make certain that your ensemble won’t let you down? Go get some of Washington’s best young actors, including Leslie Sarah Cohen, Chris Dinolfo, and Marissa Molnar. Of course, only a top director can make such talent sizzle on stage. Keith Baxter is a top director.
I haven’t even mentioned Simon Higlett’s set, which is the best set I’ve ever seen at Shakespeare, even better than The Taming of the Shrew‘s earlier this year. It may be the best set I’ve ever seen in Washington. The City of Paris opens out before you, or disappears and we are in Argan’s bedroom, or his study, and there is not a thing out of place. On the backstage wall there are huge windows and we can look out into a beautiful garden; as the scene progresses, we see the garden grow dusky, then dark (Peter West does the lighting design).
I’ve saved the best until last: Nancy Robinette. If this play featured only Robinette’s performance as the shrewd maid-servant Toinette, and had nothing else to recommend it, I would still pay $79.75 to see it. Robinette as Toinette is the life, the zing, the vigor of this play; the engine of its progress. It is a tour-de-force performance, in which Robinette allows us to see her affection for M. Argan, her love for Angelique, her toughness and shrewdness, her playfulness, her honesty – in short, effortlessly turns Toinette into the sort of person we would be glad to have as a friend. After playing the melancholy Linda Loman and doing a Helen Hayes award winning turn as the befuddled Florence Foster Jenkins, Robinette confirms it: she can play anything. Nancy Robinette is a national treasure – one we get to enjoy right here in Washington.
- Running Time: 2:15 with one intermission.
- When: Tuesdays through Sundays until July 27. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are at 8. All other evening shows are at 7.30. There are matinees at 2 on Saturdays and Sundays and a matinee at noon on Wednesday, July 23. No evening show on July 4 or 27.
- Where: Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC.
- Tickets: $23.50 — $79.75. Call 202.547.1122 or go to the website.