I will always hold Rene Auberjonois dear for his hysterical two-second impersonation of Lloyd Bridges in the priceless ’80s horror flick Eyes of Laura Mars. And yet that short-lived (literally) and memorable comic role was just a dab of icing on Auberjonois’ long, varied and accomplished stage, film and TV career. His is the kind of talent America seems no longer interested in cultivating: the actor capable of moving effortlessly between screen and stage, adjusting his methods, technique and level of dramatic intelligence accordingly. There is no relying upon the celebrity ”face” for Mr. Auberjonois. He does not, like so many visitors to the boards, assume that the usual physical and emotional gimmickry of the screen will suffice within the constructs of live theater. Thus in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh stage, Auberjonois performs as an authentic, applying rather than imitating the traditions and techniques of the stage. He is a joy to watch.
Of course, accolades for Auberjonois aside, there is no escaping that Invalid is a 17th century comedy with all the peculiarities that such origins entail. So despite his skill and flair and the translator’s occasional license with the one-liners, this is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. There are ensemble musical numbers that director Keith Baxter has been unable to make palatable (we’re talking dangerously close to something that might come out of the Christopher Guest camp here), there is some over-bearing slapstick that only the genetically predisposed could love, and the less than original (at least nowadays) plot of the gruff old dad thwarting his daughter’s quest for true love with a grotesquely unsuitable choice of husband. There is also extensive railing on the medical profession, which is much fodder for those who like to chuckle knowingly but a tad belabored for the rest of us. And finally, there are the one or two cast members who don’t quite feel the rhythm of the piece and thus threaten to dampen its spirit.
And yet for all that, those prepared for a bit of antiquated lightheartedness will find much to savor in the general silliness and the many fine performances.
Auberjonois takes the role of both Moliere, who makes the occasional rueful appearance, and Argan, the gruff old dad and world-class hypochondriac of the title. Auberjonois is a wonderful physical comic and yet he also sparkles with the kind of inner intelligence and wit that makes even his smallest tics and vocalizations ironic. He carries the show with a seemingly tireless aplomb. Somewhat less successful is his primary foil, the servant Toinette, played by Nancy Robinette. Robinette is convincing enough as a big physical presence, but her mugging to the audience and rather relentless beaming face are off-putting. Toinette is a battleaxe of the first order and there needs to be a bit of genuine grit to her or the one-liners come out like bad Vegas. Barely worth a smile let alone a guffaw.
Kaitlin O’Neal as Beline, Argan’s young, scheming wife, delivers another slightly off-target performance. Everything about her seems like it should work, but O’Neal lacks that Catherine Zeta-Jones bitch factor that makes such a stock character fun to hate.
The lovers are played by Gia Mora, as Argan’s daughter, Angelique, and Tony Roach as Cleante, the parentally-disapproved object of her affections. They seem a believable pair and have some nice comic duets. Mora has a certain earnest, unfussy charm that keeps her character from becoming too twee. In contrast, Roach who offers an unexpectedly interesting and resonant voice, gives a more spontaneous performance which, combined with his not-quite-wholesome good looks, adds a bit of edge to what could have easily been a piece of cardboard on legs.
The cast also benefits tremendously from the combined experience and presence of Drew Eshelman and Peter Land who bring much energy and comic dimension to their numerous supporting roles. John Robert Tillotson and Levi Ben-Israel as the father and son duo determined to impress Angelique, deliver some of the better laughs.
And so, all told, there is fun and pleasure to be had with this well-paced and conceived production and a unique opportunity to be in on a 17th century joke.