Combustible Company's 'Imaginary Invalid' flatlines despite the care that clearly went into it

Combustible Theater

Combustible Theater

There are many crucial conversations to have about health care today. Combustible Company's new production of The Imaginary Invalid does not make a convincing case that exhuming a 345-year-old Molière play is a good way to have them.

In fact, it doesn't make much of a case for Molière at all. The great French playwright was a master of satire, but his works were tailored for a very different place and time, and adapting them to a contemporary context takes a sure hand and confident vision. This production certainly had a vision, but onstage at Gremlin Theatre, it just doesn't materialize.

Director Kym Longhi helms a 13-person cast in a 2011 adaptation by Oded Gross and Tracy Young. Composer Paul James Pendergrast wrote original songs with lyrics by the playwrights and himself. A fundamental problem with this staging is a lack of contextual specificity. The script understandably thinks we're in France, but the actors sound American while the groovy music throws us back to swinging London. Renee Hatton's lightly zany costumes split the difference and land us in a stylish fantasy land.

Erik Hoover plays Argan, a wealthy man who thinks he's on death's door. He fumes at the hefty bills from his physician (Isaac Bont) and apothecary (Jonathan Saliger), but remains convinced he absolutely requires their questionable treatments. His wife (Julianna Drajko) ostensibly cares for him, even going so far as to administer suppositories, but in fact she's canoodling with the family attorney (Jonathan Beller) and conspiring with him to cheat Argan out of his wealth.

Meanwhile, two daughters borne by Argan's deceased previous wife are looking for love. Angelique (Joni Griffith) has fallen for Cleante (Ricky Morisseau), but her father has arranged for her to marry a young doctor (Saliger). Her sister Louison (Anna Pladson) roller-skates across the stage looking lissome, but her father is sheltering her because she has a hump back. (Her condition is different than being a hunchback, seemingly: Her posture is normal, but there's a hump sticking out from her back.)

The script feels more like an intellectual exercise in crafting an extravagantly self-referential Molière update than an attempt to write something that might actually produce laughs onstage, and Longhi amps up the winking energy in a manner that sacrifices tonal range and leaves us uncertain as to whether we're actually supposed to care about these characters or not.

That means that the most enjoyable bits are the ones where actors manage to make distinctive impressions that transcend the schtick. Griffith and Morisseau channel a zesty energy that makes their story stand out, while a flirtation between Argan's maid (Ashawnti Sakina Ford) and his brother (Antonio Duke) combines the latter's joie de vivre with the former's fresh take on the trope of the subversive servant.

The show has an elaborate, but unevenly effective, production design. Paul Herwig's set is perhaps the best thing about the play: a surreal wall of medicine cabinets displays mysterious backlit shapes, and proves surprisingly accommodating to the comings and goings of actors and props. Jim Peitzman's prominently displayed videos, on the other hand, involve a lot of flashing medical images that add little to the onstage proceedings.


The Imaginary Invalid
Gremlin Theatre
7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sunday
Through Saturday, April 28