The Imaginary Invalid
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 24, 2009
There are many good reasons to see the delightful new production of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid at the brand new Cell Theatre in Chelsea. One is the space itself—that rarity: a new indie theater venue in Manhattan!—which is nestled kind of startlingly on West 23rd Street. You literally walk right into the playing space, which has been fashioned by set designer Justin Couchara to look like a contemporary living room, a large staircase along the rear wall dominating but not overpowering the space. A set of glass French doors lead onto the sidewalk outside, and in one of the show's many happy surprises, director Matthew A.J. Gregory does not cover them with a curtain but rather uses them, frequently, for entrances and exits into and out of this room.
It is a measure of the show's excellence that not once was I distracted by the passing parade outside those glass doors.
This living room, I should say, belongs to one Mr. Argan, the hypochondriac of the play's title. Although he is in fine health, he is convinced (or has been convinced by his doctors) that he suffers from many ailments, and the large assortment of pill bottles and other medicinal items (Rogaine, for example) that litter the table next to the hospital bed that sits incongruously in the center of this otherwise nicely-appointed room, attest to this. Argan's hypochondria and generalized egoism have led him to concoct a preposterous scheme: he is going to marry his daughter Angelique to a doctor, so that he can have his own house physician, so to speak. Trouble is, Angelique is head-over-heels in love with the young poet Clay, whom she only recently met (but when we meet him, disguised as her substitute music teacher, we know right away that he's the man for her).
And there's another problem with Argan's plan: his intended bridegroom, Thomas Diafoirus (son of a doctor who is a trusted associate of Argan's own doctor), is a buffoon.
This brings me to the second important reason to see The Imaginary Invalid: the expert cast, especially—if I may play favorites for just a moment—Kyle Haggerty, who plays Thomas in the single funniest performance I've seen on stage all year (maybe in several years). Haggerty has a true clown's instincts: perfect timing and an uncanny sense of how far over the top to take a character who could either be a parody or downright annoying. Here, Thomas is a perfect fool, and his moments on stage are filled with non-stop hilarity.
Haggerty is just the most memorable of a fine ensemble. As Argan, Jeremy Lawrence mines the character's warmth and wicked sense of humor along with his neuroses—a scene with Taryn Turney as his younger daughter Louise is particularly winsome, offering nice relief from the overheated antics of the rest of the play. Cate Bottiglione is wonderful as Argan's gold-digging second wife Beline—here cloyingly concerned for her husband's welfare, there bolting out the door to do some more shopping. As her boyfriend/accomplice Bonnefoi, Matt DeCapua is also quite funny. Other outstanding performances are given by Christen Gee as Angelique and Matthew Schatz as Clay. Tiffany Denise Turner, as Moliere's stock soubrette/all-around-problem-solver Toinette (the maid) is a charming presence as well. But her role has not been contemporized as effectively as most of the others: in a 21st century Manhattan household, a live-in servant ruling the roost feels a little bit jarring.
Some more reasons to attend this show: Mary C. Hunt's costumes are fun and witty, especially the matching outfits she's contrived for Thomas and his mother. The adaptation of Moliere's play, which as mentioned brings the play right up to date, is by Matthew A.J. Gregory, Shira Gregory, Chris Harcum, and Greg Tito, and if it doesn't always succeed in finding present-day counterparts for every item in the 17th century original, it is filled with good humor and scores some very pertinent points about the state of health care (and health) in America circa 2009.