High-styled frivolity and graceful declamation are not what the doctor ordered at the Comedie-Francaise’s macabre but intriguing new production of “The Imaginary Invalid,” as Moliere’s “Le Malade Imaginaire” is somewhat fuzzily denoted in English. The august French company has been shedding its reputation for stuffy traditionalism in recent years, and this grimly compelling new staging by Swiss director Claude Stratz offers convincing proof that the French playwright’s durability owes less to the farcical or satirical thrusts of his writing than the melancholy truths in his psychological portraiture.
The curtain rises on the wizened, ashen figure of Alain Pralon’s Argan, entrapped in a chair with hospital-style appurtenances. Jean-Philippe Roy’s crepuscular lighting and Ezio Toffolutti’s barren set — brightened only by the remains of trompe l’oeil painting of an 18th century arcade — likewise suggest that a work by a famous 20th century Francophone playwright, Samuel Beckett, could easily be on the menu. Indeed, Stratz’s production is full of touches designed to draw out the existential angst he finds encoded in Moliere’s verse: A creepy sound design features the ominously magnified echoes of water slowly dripping, dripping –the sound of life and vigor slipping meaninglessly away.
Moliere fans expecting frilly costumes, flouncing wigs and stylish rhetorical flourishes will find none here. Stratz’s production seeks to underscore the darker aspects of the play, but it is not an example of a director willfully betraying the spirit of a classic. Moliere’s late comedy is a death-haunted play, and not just because the author famously lost his long battle with tuberculosis just hours after giving his fourth performance as the title character. It’s celebrated as a sharp-tongued satire of a hypochondriac in thrall to the bogus magic of the medical profession, but in Moliere’s mockery there can be heard the bitter sound of a man railing against the real villain, mortality.
The plot hews to the contours of a classic Moliere comedy: The irascible Argan, tormented by his possibly imagined ill health, plots to wed his comely daughter Angelique (Julie Sicard) to a medical student, the son of a prominent doctor. All the better to cut back on his onerous bills for his enemas and other treatments, hinted at gruesomely in a staging that is grotesque even when it is most farcical (a piece of advice: look away whenever the bedpan comes out).
Angelique is in love with the dashing young Cleante (Eric Ruf). In one of the few lighter passages in this presentation, Cleante disguises himself as a music master and flirts with Angelique, in the guise of a lovelorn shepherd in a makeshift opera, before a clueless Argan and his approved, doltish suitor. (All the doctors in the production, played with Dickensian grotesqueness by Christian Blanc and Nicolas Lormeau, are made to look scrofulous at best, three-days-dead at worst.)
Seeking to disrupt Argan’s plans is a familiar Moliere type, the wily maid, here named Toinette, and played as a disarming combination of sincerity and guile by Muriel Mayette. In addition to foiling Argan’s plans for his daughter’s matrimony, Toinette must outwit Angelique’s scheming stepmother Beline (Catherine Sauval), who has her own plans for the girl: a convent.
The cast could hardly be improved upon. One of the primary pleasures of the evening is the discovery that this fabled company, rarely seen on these shores (their last Gotham visit was in 1996), is in such expert shape. The actors all serve Stratz’s serious-minded vision by treating their characters not as lovable comic stereotypes but flesh-and-blood human beings driven by uncomfortable but undeniable desires. Sicard, in particular, brings poignant truth to Angelique’s unhappy dilemma, but it’s Pralon’s Argan — a petty tyrant in truly terrified thrall to his own delusions — who naturally dominates the evening, in a performance that inspires as much pity as it does laughter.
The play’s climax is the scene in which Argan is convinced by Toinette to play dead, the better to read the real feelings of his wife and daughter. The scene lends itself to boisterous comedy, but it is played with a full measure of melancholy here, in dim, funereal lighting. Argan greets his wife’s coolly cruel description of his repulsiveness not with a burst of stagy anger but in the broken voice of a man shaken to the core. This poison would surely succeed in destroying even the healthiest constitution, if it weren’t for the antidote that follows: proof of his daughter’s sincere devotion.