nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 3, 2009
Forgive the gush of hyperbole, but I believe that The Hypochondriac may very well be the funniest play in New York right now. You may as well check it out, to see for yourself whether I'm right.
This is the latest incarnation of a contemporary re-imagining of Moliere's 1673 farce Le Malade Imaginaire undertaken by director Matthew AJ Gregory and three collaborators, Shira Gregory (his wife), Chris Harcum, and Greg Tito. (Their work, which respects the original's framework but brings the piece thoroughly up to date, is based on a 19th century prose translation by Charles Heron Wall.) I saw this team's last version, then called The Imaginary Invalid, back in July. Gregory and his colleagues have used the intervening months well to tighten, focus, re-tool and recast the play, and the result is splendid. And hilarious.
The Hypochondriac is about Mr. Argan, a seemingly fit and clearly well-to-do middle-aged man who has decided that he is very, very ill. He allows his medical team, led by a formidable quack named Dr. Purgon, to keep him on a constant regimen of pills, tests, and enemas: he's addicted not so much to particular medications as to the idea of being medicated. He is, in short, a very foolish man, and in the person of co-adaptor Chris Harcum, he is a deliciously funny one to spend time with. Harcum brings a deep empathy for this fellow's problems and a clown's broad and fearless physicality—watch him will himself into have a seizure, or suddenly feel an onset of avian flu, or, best of all, slide down a full flight of stairs after a scuffle with members of his household. This is a brilliant comic performance.
Mr. Argan's obsession with his health precipitates the main crisis in the play, which is that he has decided to marry his lovely young daughter Angelique to a physician. His choice is Thomas Diafoirus, nephew to Dr. Purgon, a young man whose good qualities are so few in number as to be close to non-existent. Kyle Haggerty repeats his show-stopping portrayal of this lovably neanderthal dolt; like Harcum, he relies on both an actor's sensitivity and a physical comic's timing and skill to turn his moments on stage into blissful hilarity. The laughter during his scene, in which he meets and attempts to woo Argan and Angelique, is infectious and pretty much nonstop.
Angelique does not want to marry Thomas—she knows this even before she meets him, because she is in love with the strapping poet Clay. With Toinette, Argan's long-suffering and miraculously competent personal assistant, she tries to find a way to convince her father to let her marry the man she prefers. Meanwhile, Argan's gold-digging second wife Beline, who makes a show of being a devoted helpmeet to her ailing husband, has plans of her own, which involve her accountant, Bonnefoi, and some rearrangements to Argan's will.
Though you know in advance that somehow Argan will see the error of his ways and reward those who deserve it (Toinette and Angelique) and discard those who deserve that (Beline, Dr. Purgon), the journey there is mad, daffy fun. Gregory and his co-authors also find ways to make The Hypochondriac speak directly to our own overmedicated culture, inserting video spoofs of pharmaceutical ads between the scenes, and putting some of the key arguments (pro and con) from our ongoing national health care debate right into the play.
Gregory's direction is fast and apt, benefiting from the beautiful set (designed by Justin Couchara) that transforms the Cell Theater's entire playing area into Argan's spacious and upscale Manhattan home. The details on this set are priceless; I found the eye chart hanging over the chaise longue particularly humorous. The other design elements also abet the piece nicely, particularly Adam Coffia's costumes (those for Beline and Thomas are character sight gags all by themselves).
The eight-person cast is outstanding, all of them expert actors and clowns. Haggerty plays Dr. Purgon (in drag) in the play's final act. Sheila Jones is very funny as both Thomas's mother and the vaguely sinister but dutiful Nurse Florence. Also pulling double duty is Douglas Scott Sorenson, who is a delightfully silly Bonnefoi in the first act and Argan's laid-back but very compassionate brother, Barry, in Act Three. Chris Critelli and Shira Gregory make a very attractive and likable young couple to root for as Clay and Angelique. Cate Bottiglione, like Haggerty a holdover from The Imaginary Invalid last summer, gives a stunning comic portrayal of unbridled avarice as Beline. And anchoring the household is Vivienne Leheny as the ever-sensible Toinette, in a no-nonsense performance that still includes its share of shtick and pratfalls.
The Hypochondriac, offered at indie theater prices in a delightful intimate setting at the Cell in Chelsea, is as grand and glorious a farce as I've ever seen. It deserves the exposure that a long run on Broadway would give it, and maybe some insightful producer will check it out and make that happen. Till then, it's a highlight of the indie fall season. If you're in the mood to laugh a lot, this may be the best medicine to take.