Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Imaginary Invalid and Legends!

A Cheeky Production of Moliére's The Imaginary Invalid

Nancy Dussault and John Apicella
American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting a world premiere adaptation by Constance Congdon of Moliére's The Imaginary Invalid (the play that killed Moliére; he was playing the role of the hypochondriac when he suffered a severe pulmonary attack during a performance). Some of the characters in the original are no longer in this fast-paced, two-hour, one-intermission play. One can say this is a streamlined version for 21st century audiences.

The Imaginary Invalid is an evening of delight and occasional merriment. With its over the top exaggerated acting, much of the play reminds me of a Three Stooges comedy. Moliére takes a satirical looks at the medical profession, with an opening number of three quack doctors singing "If it quacks like a duck, it is a duck." The music is a kind of rococo, between baroque and classical.

Argan (John Apicella) is the imaginary invalid whose financial circumstances have collapsed because of excessive medical bills, made by his own fears and by the devious behavior of Doctor Purgeon (Steven Anthony Jones) and Monsieur Fleurant (Anthony Fusco), an apothecary with a large enema gun.  Argan decides to marry off his daughter Angelique (Allison Jean White) to Claude de Aria (Gregory Wallace), another doctor who is the nephew protêgê of Doctor Purgeon.  However the daughter's affections lie elsewhere, with handsome actor Cleante (Jud Williford). Soon the entire household is involved in a complex, hysterical plot to save true love.

John Apicella (ACT The First Picture Show, Glengarry Glen Ross) sounds and plays the role like Charles Grodin, with his whiny voice. He plays almost a solo part during the first ten minutes of the farce. He gives a winning performance, underplaying the role while the rest of the cast goes overboard in embellished acting.

Nancy Dussault (Broadway Do Re Mi, Bajour, Side by Side by Sondheim) is a delight as the bossy servant Toinette.  She enters and exits many times spouting zingers, to the amusement of the audience.  Her disguise as a phony doctor in the second act does not come off well, however.

Rene Augesen (ACT core actress) gives a stand-out performance as Beline, the bewitchingly avaricious bantering wife of Argan who is out to secure her husband's money for herself.  She is aided by Anthony Fusco playing a second part as the devious notary co-conspirator. He is hilarious as this very showy character. His inflated movements are side splitting.

Jud Williford (Happy End, The Rivals) plays the hammy actor who moves scrumptiously with the body language of romantic torture. It reminds me of some of the campy acting of John Barrymore in his later films. Allison Jean White (ACT core actress) is charmingly melodramatic as the daughter, Angelique.

Steven Anthony Jones (ACT core actor) and Gregory Wallace (ACT core actor) almost steal the show with their buffoonery as the doctor and his protégé. Just seeing Gregory Wallace in his hilariously ridiculous outfit, saying very few words, brings down the house with riotous laughter. It is a tour de force of comic acting.

There is a nondescript ensemble of very fine actors which consists of Maureen McVerry, Margaret Head and Brian Stevens. They have nothing to do but move furniture around and come on stage in masks in the rousing musical number that sounds like Carl Off's "Carmina Burana." Fabian Obispo is credited for the musical interludes; an early Kurt Weill melody ends the first act.  Lyrics to these interludes have been composed by the playwright Congdon and are clever. 

Erik Flatmo's cunning stage design looks like an early 1920s German expressionistic film set with a raked stage and solidly bourgeois room that tilts the other way. Lighting by Nancy Schertler and sound by Fabian Obispo are wonderful, especially when Beline enters each scene with thunder and lighting effects in green colors. Beaver Bauer's costumes are very imaginative, with towering wigs and flowing, windswept bustles and sumptuous brocade. Ron Lagomarsino's direction is brisk pacing with actors coming in and going out at remarkable speed.

The Imaginary Invalid plays through July 8th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit  American Conservatory Theatre opens its new season with the winner of two 2006 Tony Awards, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, on August 30th.

Photo: Kevin Berne   

Legends! at the New Conservatory Theatre Center

Carla Vaughn and Eleanor Jacobs
James Kirkwood's Legends! is playing in the Walker Theatre of the New Conservatory Theatre Center through July 14th.  This is a new spin on the original play created for Mary Martin and Carol Channing.  The new production, directed by Andrew Nance, stars local African-American divas Carla Vaughn as Leatrice Monsee (the Mary Martin role) and Eleanor Jacobs as Sylvia Glenn (the Carol Channing role).

James Kirkwood, having just co-written A Chorus Line, decided to write a special comedy for the current reigning theatre divas Mary Martin and Carol Channing. The story was about a cheesy producer trying to sign two feuding, fading Hollywood stars (think Joan Crawford and Bette Davis) to star in his Broadway play called Star Wars. Legends was to tour 23 cities and then go to Broadway (it played here at the Curran Theatre). The play received awful reviews, but the crowds came to see the legendary actresses dish each other in the two-hour production. Mary Martin pulled out of the production when her second act speech about breast cancer was cut. James Kirkwood writes in "Diary of a Mad Playwright" about Ms. Martin refusing to go to New York with the production. She gave her notice, saying, "This is a very rare moment in my professional career. Not only is the speech ruined for me, but the play is ruined for me. I will go on, but I will not play London and I will not come to New York. I'll fulfill my contract and then you can get someone else and cut anything you want."

Last year Joan Collins and Linda Evans attempted to revive the outdated, weakly scripted play in a production that started in the Midwest but was abandoned before it got to New York. Why the New Conservatory Theatre Center decided to revive it is beyond my comprehension.

Their production does have some wit, and the zingers that fly between Sylvia and Leatrice are somewhat amusing.  There is a lot of talk about film stars like George Sanders and Mickey Rooney that might go over the heads of the younger members of the audience.  Some of the lines just don't go over (the out of work Leatrice says "I'll play anything but Gary Coleman's mother"; Leatrice says to Sylvia, "You look like Sam Jaffe in Gunga Din").  There is an unfunny story that goes on for a long time about a fellow actress who was eaten by the cats in her apartment.

In the second, the two divas accidentally eat a character's Black Magic Ho Do Brownies which are full of "hish hash" which should have these two women reeling. However, the drug does not seem to have much effect on them.

Eleanor Jacobs (St. Louis Community Rain, Brigadoon, Wonderful Town and recently Cat On a Hot Tin Roof at A.C.T.) and Carla Vaughn (nominated for a SF Critic Circle award for Sophisticated Ladies at Lorraine Hansberry) are both fine actresses trying to rise above the poor script.

P.T. Cooley (NCTC's Theater District, Love Valour Compassion) can be one very funny fellow; however, he is strapped down by two tired vaudeville scenes involving telephones at the beginning of the first and second acts.  He works hard playing the manic producer Martin Klemmer who has a show Off Broadway called Crap.  Gloria Belle (The Heidi Chronicles) tries to maintain her self-respect in the clichéd role of Aretha, a maid.  She is the liveliest member of the cast. Dorsey Dyer plays the Chippendale stripper Boom Boom Johnson. He does an entertaining strip routine in the second act.   Kai Brothers (Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte) does a brief walk on as a policeman.

Bruce Walters has designed a handsome living room set on the small stage that is very detailed. Costumes by Prem Lathi are very good for the '80s (P.T. Cooley's flaming red suit in the last scene would stop traffic on Van Ness Ave.).

Legends! plays at the Walker Theatre in the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness at Market, San Francisco through July 14th.  For tickets please call the box office at 415-861-6988 or on line at

Photo: Lois Tema

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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