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The Imaginary Invalid

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Molière didn't die onstage while playing the lead role in his final play, The Imaginary Invalid - he merely collapsed, only to die at home later. Close enough. Like most of Molière's works, The Imaginary Invalid is a sparkling comedy adorned with many opportunities for comic explosions and social insight; in theatrical terms, one is hard pressed to imagine a better way to go.

Yet the new Pearl Theatre Company production of the play that Eleanor Holdridge has directed is one steeped in such flat, unremitting disinterest that it's difficult to imagine anyone - onstage or in the audience - getting worked up enough by it to generate a life-threatening condition. There's little worse than a comedy that doesn't get laughs, but a Molière play churning and roiling in its production's own self-importance - and getting too few laughs - is a prime contender.

From the pantomimic musical sequences opening each act to the play's final scene, in which the titular character finally takes responsibility for his own health, Holdridge seems desperate to give the audience as much visual stimulation as possible. She would have been better off focusing her attention (and ours) on the text: The production is, visually, a Technicolor daymare incorporating a set (Takeshi Kata) dressed with brightly colored wall panels depicting various views of the human body and a radioactive-yellow rug and costumes (Barbara A. Bell) of attractive semi-period style but garish in color.

One can understand, then, why the performers look and behave so ill at ease as they enact the story of the hypochondriac Argan (Robert Hock), so determined to trust the medical profession that he is willing to subsume his perfect health (and considerable wealth) to them for tiny or often non-existent ailments. While Argan's doctors and his wife (Carol Schultz) thrive on all this as a means to a financial end, Argan's devoted but spirited servant Toinette (Joanne Camp) attempts to convince her employer of his health, and that he should allow his daughter Angelique (Allison Nichols) to marry the man she loves (Christopher Moore) instead of the son (Sean McNall) of one of Argan's many physicians.

These situations permitted Molière to voice his own concerns about the medical profession of his day, primarily through Argan's brother, Beralde (Dominic Cuskern), who repudiates the establishment altogether and insists that the human body can take care of itself. If his criticisms border on the naïve today, his words about over-reliance on doctors instead of taking control of one's own health remain relevant. So do the babblings of Toinette, when she administers a psychological placebo to Argan while masquerading as another doctor late in the play.

These brief glimpses of resonance are about the only such moments in the production, and they - like so much else here - are at best amusing rather than downright funny. Hock's Argan seems to be in on the joke from the first scene, never convincing us that he believes he's as infirm as he complains. Argan's caustic relationship with Toinette succeeds only intermittently; Hock and Camp display a chemistry suggesting friends rather than sparring rivals, and when the barbs start flying the two always seem willing to duck a half a second too soon.

Most of the supporting cast members are dressed and made up to look like a horrifying tour company grotesquerie, making little impression. The humans generally come off the best, with Moore's young lover especially affable and Sue Jean Kim's brief but energetic turn as Argan's youngest daughter a nice shot in the arm for the flailing production. Better still is Nichols, living up to her character's name and bringing warmth and a quiet grace to her role; she seems infinitely more alive and vibrant than most of what surrounds her.

That's not unsurprising - she has a serious role she knows how to handle in a production littered with actors who can't land their comic quips and bland stage business incapable of bringing out few of The Imaginary Invalid's many latent laughs. Molière knew how to wring guffaws from subject matter as potentially dire as this, and, as is also true today, there are many jokes about bodily functions. Still, one would expect that a show with such frequent talk about enemas would never result in a production as constipated as this one all too often is.

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The Pearl Theatre Company
The Imaginary Invalid
Through December 12
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with two intermissions
Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark's Place (eastern extension of 8th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues)
Schedule and Tickets: 212.598.9802