Imaginary Invalid

PlayMakers Rep
Through Nov. 11

It goes without saying that I never wish to disturb my readers’ gentler sensibilities. Still, I really know no other way to accurately put this: Imaginary Invalid is, without question, the shittiest show I’ve ever seen at PlayMakers Rep.

But before we all go jumping off the cliff of that particular conclusion, please take a moment to bear in mind the words of the late, great secular saint of standup, Father George Carlin, who once observed that there’s an awful lot of different shit out there. There’s good shitreally good shit, in fact. And there’s bad shit (as regular readers of this space may verify. Ba-dum-bump).

Then there’s the same old shit, of which more than one production in PlayMakers’ extended past has stood accused.

That certainly can’t be said for this outing, in which regional playwright David Ball, director Dominique Serrand and compelling lead actor Stephen Epp gleefully assert that Molière was actually the Louis C.K. of 17th-century France.

These longtime co-conspirators have previously worked together on earlier adaptations of Molière’s Tartuffe and The Miser for the late, lamented (and Tony Award-winning) Minneapolis company Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Here they present an addled title character, the arrogant and wealthy Argan (Epp), who, like many Americans, has read far too many medical articles and pharmaceutical ads to ever consider himself truly healthy. We may never know the exact extent to which hypochondria and obsessive overvigilance has contributed to our country’s current medical care crisis, but Argan has apparently swallowed almost every differential diagnosis he ever saw on House. What’s worse, he’s found doctors more than happy to cater to his fears.

As a result, he drives his family and his house staffhead maid Toinette (strong Molly Ward) and a long-suffering nurse (Julie Fishell)more than a little crazy with his endless recital of ailments. Ball’s deliberately scabrous adaptation spares us nothing from that catalog, with repeated and abrasive verbal and, occasionally, visual references to the acts and by-products of defecation, inevitably transported and dumped into an audience-level basin by the sarcastic Bucket Boy (given fitting contempt by Nilan Johnson). Bathroom humor, in which the occasional fart joke is by far the most delicate component, regularly recurs throughout the script.

Under Serrand’s direction, actor Katie Paxton comically nails the adolescent awkwardness of Little Angel, Argan’s lovestruck teenage daughter facing an arranged marriage, and Kathryn Hunter-Williams fleshes out the similarly de rigeur subplot involving a faithless wife. Josh Tobin and Nathan Keepers give commedia turns to Angel’s heartthrob, Irving-Luigi, and unwanted suitor, Dr. St. Judas. Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Ray Dooley get dressed up for Halloween early in barnside broad takes on Argan’s quack, Dr. Wachauvia, and his brother Ergo, a Mafioso-on-the-down-low.

Argan finally learns his lesson, but after such a lengthy kvetch-fest, it may be too late for his characterand a number of audience members as well. This production’s gritty grace notes of masked figures playing Sickness and Death figure at the first and the last, but the literal chorus of redemption (contrasting an earlier vocal number devoted to defecation) seems an unsuccessful last-moment organ transplant from another show.

Should you see Imaginary Invalid, gentle reader? The answer has a lot to do with how much crap you’re willing to put up withliterally. But this scare-the-horses production marks a definite break in a room that’s tended to be associated with the safer and more staid choices in years past. That fact alone tempted me to remark to my companion, “Ain’t that some shit!”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Dirty old classics.”