Review: ‘The Imaginary Invalid’

Constance Congdon's new version of "The Imaginary Invalid" is a free adaptation that performs some useful surgery on Moliere's original -- a little liposuction here, a little rhinoplasty there.

Constance Congdon’s new version of “The Imaginary Invalid” is a free adaptation that performs some useful surgery on Moliere’s original — a little liposuction here, a little rhinoplasty there. While there are uneven aspects to both text and Ron Lagomarsino’s ACT premiere staging, on the whole this is a bright evening of amusement and occasional hilarity.

Congdon and company have dropped a couple lesser characters, expanded a couple more, adding contemporary linguistic anachronisms that provide clever punctuation rather than shifting the entire apparatus into modern mode. The result is as lean, clean and comically bent as Erik Flatmo’s set: A narrow lavender-hued parlor with its high ceiling beyond sight, the whole interior tilted like the Tower of Pisa.

Here, wealthy Argan (John Apicella) sits engrossed in his all-consuming pursuit: illness. His infinite hypochondria is encouraged by Dr. Purgeon (Steven Anthony Jones), a physician all too willing to provide constantly worse — not to mention contradictory — diagnoses, and Beline (Rene Augesen), Argan’s second wife, who’s quite happy to keep her much older husband’s amatory attentions at bay.

Meanwhile Beline plots with her notary lover (Anthony Fusco, double-cast as an enema-delivering apothecary) to have Argan will her his fortune, bypassing his only child, dewy Angelique (Allison Jean White).

Angelique has fallen in love with impassioned Cleante (Jud Williford) just as her dad finds a match for her — Dr. Purgeon’s nephew (Gregory Wallace). Argan’s opinionated servant Toinette (Nancy Dussault) nags him throughout as she endeavors to ensure that true love wins out.Stage/tube veteran Dussault holds more than just the household together, her bossy brass providing the show’s engine to make up for the lack of a stronger presence from the competent but uninspired Apicella. Major scene-stealer here, however, is Williford, who riffs deliciously on the body lingo of romantic torment. He’s just been named one of ACT’s “core acting company” members, and this turn makes that seem a wise decision indeed.

Some of the other actors’ character takes are idiosyncratic but fall short of being particularly funny. It’s not funny at all, though, to see Maureen McVerry, a fine singer and wonderful comedienne who’s handled major roles at ACT in thepast, wasted as part of the nondescript “ensemble” mostly used to move furniture around.

Though Congdon’s lyrics have their appeal (“There is something quite demonic/In a high colonic” trills a trio in a cautionary musical prelude), song interludes composed by Fabian Obispo are less delightful than intended, mostly because few cast members can sing very well. (This was also a problem with ACT’s recent “The Threepenny Opera.”) But Beaver Bauer’s costumes, Nancy Schertler’s lighting, Congdon’s text and director Lagomarsino’s brisk pacing maintain a mood of lively fun even when this “Invalid” is merely gesticulating toward laughs.

The Imaginary Invalid

American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco; 1,035 seats; $81.50 top

Production

An American Conservatory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Moliere, adapted by Constance Congdon. Directed by Ron Lagomarsino.

Creative

Set, Erik Flatmo; costumes, Beaver Bauer; lighting, Nancy Schertler; original music and sound, Fabian Obispo; musical director, Frank Johnson; dramaturg, Michael Paller. Opened, reviewed June 13, 2007. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Argan - John Apicella Beline - Rene Augesen Angelique - Allison Jean White Cleante - Jud Williford Claude de Aria - Gregory Wallace Dr. Purgeon - Steven Anthony Jones Mssr. De Bonnefoi, Mssr. Fleurant - Anthony Fusco Toinette - Nancy Dussault
With: Margarett Head, Maureen McVerry, Brian Stevens.
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