René Augesen, John Apicella, and Anthony Fusco
in The Imaginary Invalid
(© Kevin Berne)
René Augesen, John Apicella, and Anthony Fusco
in The Imaginary Invalid
(© Kevin Berne)
Molière penned his final play, the slapstick comedy The Imaginary Invalid more than 450 years ago, and it is not only amazing that this lesser-known play still stands the test of time, but how visionary this comedy, currently being seen in Constance Congdon's new adaptation at the American Conservatory Theatre, has become. Or should we really be surprised in this age of plentiful medication -- as doctors scribble prescriptions faster than it takes to gulp a handful of pills down with a glass of water -- that The Imaginary Invalid feels as relevant today as it did when healers swore by snake oil and holy water rather than Nexium and Zoloft?

Moreover, Congdon has folded in a healthy dose of present-day nuances and innuendos, as well as beefed up the plot. The result is an entertaining and jovial romp, complemented by an excellent cast that makes Congdon's 21st-century anachronisms work.

John Apicella is enjoyable as the play's central character, Argan, a laughable hypochondriac, whose long list of new and old ailments give him continual hope that death's door will open up to him any day. Comparable to the rather likeable whining and self-absorbed idiocy that Seinfeld's George Costanza helped nurture, Apicella's reading of the character is smart and endearing.

Playing his doting daughter Angélique is Allison Jean White, who shells out perhaps the largest number of R-rated innuendos, but so innocently that the humor dodges being too self-aware or trying. Outstanding performances also come from Jud Williford, who plays Angélique's beau, Cléante, and Anthony Fusco, who makes the most of his role as Monsieur de Bonnefoi, a notary who teams up with Argan's wife, Béline (played by ACT stalwart René Augesen). A.C.T. core actors Steven Anthony Jones and Gregory Wallace, who are often paired together in company productions because of their superb chemistry, are delightful as Doctor Purgeon and his witless nephew, Claude de Aria (the joke here being that de Aria has an uncanny sound to diarrhea).

Costume designer Beaver Bauer is immensely deserving of praise for working in a generous amount of humor into the show via the cast's wardrobe. The level of ridiculousness achieved though Claude de Aria's dress is surely over-the-top -- but brilliant in that it gets the initial big laugh, and then is able to blend in suitably without becoming a distraction to the action on stage. Bonnefoi's trousers, which feature two carefully placed bows at crotch-level, is where audiences can look to find the more understated humor woven into the show.

Directed by Ron Lagomarsino, this production benefits from very good staging, excelling during those moments where the bulk of the cast is present, such as the final scene before the close of Act I, when Angélique's hand has been promised to de Aria, leading to chaos.

Smaller scenes however, are somewhat lacking in crackle, and everything slows down significantly in the second act, although it is somewhat difficult to pin down exactly why. For example, a scene where Toinette (played by the fantastic Nancy Dussault) goes undercover as a doctor in an attempt to sully the name of Doctor Purgeon, falls flat. Safely out of view behind Argan's high-backed chair, Dussault plays two roles at once, moving back and forth between acting as the fake doctor and the real Toinette. Unfortunately, this exchange doesn't have the frenetic, laugh-a-second energy most likely intended.

Still, the great Frenchman's last contribution to the world's stage -- he died onstage while playing Argan -- proves that time has stood still when it comes to the eternal nature of the hypochondriac. San Francisco audiences should enjoy such musings just as much today as Molière's contemporaries did then.