Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Hypochondriac

Photo/Amy Knutson

Why does this bold company call itself "The Cell"? Their performance space is a converted luxury apartment, and even if it were a prison, nightly entertainments like The Hypochondriac would quickly encourage even the grumpiest of theatergoers to lock themselves in and throw away the key. Of course, true fans of comedy might do that simply upon finding a passable production of Moliere; this takes it a step further by updating The Imaginary Invalid to modern times. As a result, this satire has bite again: in fact, its teeth are so sharp that some bits--like Justin Stasiw's videos of late-night medical commercials--come across more as accurate imitations than spoofs. (Though part of that's the fault of over-the-top conditions in America today.)

Those "teeth" have also been further sharpened by the crew of adapters, from the director Matthew A. J. Gregory to actors Shira Gregory and Chris Harcum, and the playwright Greg Tito. (Based on Charles Heron Wall's English prose, though nothing is lost in translation.) Everyone brings a unique skill to the table, and that helps them both to identify the crucial bits and to cram them full of the little lazzis that make commedia dell'arte so quick and fun. Furthermore, they know when to call it quits--knowing that their audience is likely to already agree with their belittlement of overpriced, overprescribed health "care," they focus more on characters and zingers than on belaboring or "proving" their points.

Argan, the hypochondriac, is so wealthy that he spends all of his time protecting the one thing he needs to enjoy his money: his health. He's even marrying off his daughter (the beautiful Shira Gregory, who nails the character's girlish eagerness) to a doctor, despite her wish to marry the artistic Clay (Chris Critelli, who pulls off a damn good Cheyenne Jackson). With the help of Argan's skeptical, liberal brother, Barry (Douglas Scott Sorenson), the maid Toinette (Vivienne Leheny) attempts to expose Argan's doctor (Sheila Jones) and second wife, Beline (Cate Bottiglione, channeling Real Housewives everywhere). It's a classic comedy, so you know how it'll end.

What you don't know is just how far those characters will go, especially the scene-stealing Kyle Haggerty, who plays Angelique's proposed husband. Shuffling in with a constipated grin frozen on his face, speaking in blatantly-rehearsed and lisped rushes, he's already more than hysterical. And yet, he finds a way to push further; after pestering his mother for a juice box, he winds up struggling with the plastic straw-wrapper for nearly five minutes, and Gregory milks it for all its worth, making more of a point about the inanity of modern medicine with that than the doctor's monologue (which, admittedly, was drowned out by laughter).

Everyone has a moment to shine, especially thanks to some double-casting (and disguises). Clay, attempting to see Angelique, impersonates an overseas scholar, which gives Critelli the opportunity to have fun with an accent. Later, when Toinette pretends to be a learned doctor, Leheny goes a step further, slurring together Italian and Russian, and having a great struggle with her recalcitrant stick-on mustache. As Beline's unscrupulous accountant, Sorenson plays against his nebbish type, all but jumping Beline as the two try to change Argan's will--only to come on later as the very solid and serious Barry. Last, but certainly not least, as the childish Argan, Harcum has the hard task of remaining interesting, blathering on as he does about enemas; yet he does, using the double-take on himself, whenever he realizes, mid-rant, that he's supposed to be sick. (In his best moment, after tumbling down a flight of stairs, he continues to rage for a minute before suddenly realizing he's fallen.)

If the proximity of the adaptors to the script has helped them, so too does the proximity of the actors to the audience. Gregory masterfully uses the natural sight lines of the space, then squeezes every joke he can out of it. Carpets are slipped on, pills are ravenously ingested, the bathroom is used (as is the bar), always with the audience just a few feet away. Ironically, the quality of The Hypochondriac makes a strong case for unnecessary medicine: nobody needs to see this play, but you'll absolutely be sold on wanting to go back again and again and again.

No comments: