The Imaginary Invalid
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
November 1, 2006
Resonance Ensemble's mission to develop new plays inspired by classic plays is demonstrated in full with their rotating repertory productions of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid and the world premiere of Charles L. Mee's The Mail Order Bride. The latter is inspired by the former (as well as other plays by Molière, Wycherley, and Aristophanes), and though Invalid is very frequently produced, it's nice to have it here again for the convenience of being able to revisit a famous comedy and get to know a new one.
Molière's satire The Imaginary Invalid skewers the medical profession and those enslaved by greedy doctors' profit-driven diagnoses. The hypochondriac Argan plots to marry his daughter Angelique to a doctor in order to continue the myriad medical treatments he is psychologically (if not physically) dependent on for free. The doctor, however, is a twit, and Angelique has true love for another, so with the help of the sassy maid Toinette, a counter-plot to remove this obstacle to their love by revealing the ill intentions of Argan's doctors and his gold-digging wife is put into action. The plot succeeds and Argan sees the error of his ways, but that doesn't keep him from buying into a bizarre mock ceremony where he is inducted into the medical profession so that he can continue his regimen of medicines, treatments, and enemas on a "self-serve" basis.
Director Rebecca Patterson and costume designer Jenny Fulton seem to envision Argan's house as a virtual three-ring circus, where clownish, mustachioed doctors rush in and out and even Argan's family and domestics seem always to be putting on an over-the-top display. There are stand-out performances by Kari Nicole Washington as Angelique, and Samarra, who, in drag complete with goatee, makes a very sexy Cleante, Angelique's lover. These two have true chemistry and make it easy to forget that they are two female actors playing a male-female couple. Amy Driesler also is convincing portraying various male roles including Argan's wiser brother, Beralde.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Virginia Baeta's lead performance as Argan. Baeta never was able to make me focus on her character's predicament rather than the fact that this is a young woman playing an elderly man. Part of the problem is that it is not clear why director Patterson has chosen to present the play with an all-female cast; nothing special or meaningful is revealed by having a woman play the hypochondriac, especially since Argan is played as a man. Without a strong concept to anchor her performance, it is no wonder that Baeta seems a little out of sync with the rest of the ensemble.
Like Molière's Invalid, Mee's play focuses on an older man on an eternal quest for well-being, though in this case well-being includes romance in addition to health and youth. This Argan, a contemporary Brooklyn widower, presides over a Coney Island Avenue household which includes his spinster sister, his two daughters, and a pair of chipper personal trainer/stylists. To prove that there's still life in the old codger yet, he has ordered an innocent, young Asian woman to be his bride. The family protests, but when the mail-order bride arrives, she quickly falls in love with the wedding reception's handsome young caterer and undergoes a massive transformation from wide-eyed innocent to strong woman in charge of her own destiny. Argan is left to lick his wounds, but just as he begins to resign himself to the fact that he cannot reclaim his youth, opportunity unexpectedly knocks.
The Mail Order Bride is a very entertaining and funny new play, even when it sends mixed messages tone-wise. The structure and comedic voice of the play is very similar to The Imaginary Invalid; in fact, Bride's heart-on-sleeve dialogue, written in verse, frequently sounds as though it is a translation, making it feel even more similar to the production of the Molière. The play's over-the-top, free-wheeling comedic style takes a little while to hit its stride, but once it does, it really takes off. The only bumps in the road are an overuse of soliloquies and asides where the characters summarize and underline their feelings for the audience, which interrupt the flow of the evening. A more judicious and purposeful use of these devices might have been more effective. But in general Mee captures Molière's satirical voice remarkably well and applies it to an interesting story full of current references.
Almost all of the performances are very successful in bringing clear, interesting characters to life, which is a challenge in this piece because the stylized text leaves very little room for subtlety or subtext. Susan Ferrara and Susan Louise O'Connor have great opportunities to put their comic skills to use as Argan's sister Harriet and his daughter Julie. Sue Jean Kim has been given a plum role as June, the mail order bride, with some very nice speeches and she makes a very complete and convincing transformation. John Henry Cox is terrific as Argan, nailing the bittersweet moment where Argan has to let go of June and therefore his obsessive quest for youth. Director Eric Parness nicely builds the play to its absurdly farcical final pages, including a full-fledged "Scooby-Doo" ending.
Invalid and Bride both use contemporary musical interludes to play out relationships and situations in their respective stories. This device works marginally better in the contemporary play than in the classic play, where it feels intrusive and gimmicky. The original musical numbers for Bride, by Nick Moore (music) and Travis Kramer (lyrics), are wildly tacky, but they provide some very funny moments, including the ultra-white Harriet rapping about a "Bull Dagger Party." Even so, these interludes don't forward the story, but rather delay the action for a few laughs. The single musical number that fully succeeds in either play is the song between the lovers Cleante and Angelique in The Imaginary Invalid. It is an integral part of the plot itself—it is how Argan discovers his daughter is in love. Molière knew how to make the musical entertainment truly count.
The similarity between the plays raises a question for me: if a Molière has written a play for the ages, a classic that transcends its time with a universal voice that speaks to us powerfully and meaningfully centuries later, what exactly is the point of pairing it with a new play that is closely "inspired" by classics? Is the updating of wardrobe and topical references really necessary for a play to truly resonate with a contemporary audience? Don't get me wrong—I don't question that new plays need to be written and produced and that there is much craft and wisdom for contemporary playwrights to mine in the classic repertoire. But when the primary difference between Molière's Argan and Mee's Argan is that one wears a robe and cap and the other wears a track suit, the question does occur. Maybe Resonance Ensemble is providing an exercise for playwrights to truly "get inside the heads" of the great playwrights just as young composers often will "arrange" a piece by Mozart or Schubert in order to understand their craft more fully.
Regardless, Resonance Ensemble is doing a great job producing these kinds of shows in rep on a regular basis, and they deserve support so that they can continue to produce and provide valuable opportunities to playwrights, actors, and audiences.