Directed by Kinetic’s producing artistic director Andrew Paul and written by local actor and playwright Simon Bradbury, the play follows Molière (played by Bradbury) as he prepares for what his wife and others around him fear will be his final performance in The Imaginary Invalid, which is, in fact, the last play the real Molière wrote before his death of tuberculosis. The playwright famously died a few hours after collapsing on stage during a 1673 performance in which he played The Imaginary Invalid's titular character, a wealthy hypochondriac named Argon who tries to marry his daughter to a doctor in order to save on medical bills.
In contrast to Argon, and as the title of Bradbury’s play suggests, Molière is actually quite sick in this rendition. We first meet him as he rushes into his dressing room at the tail end of a coughing fit, eager to conceal evidence that his tuberculosis has gotten much worse from his wife Armande (Joanna Strapp) and their servant La Forest (Derdriu Ring), lest they decide he is too ill to perform in an hour.
It seems clear that Molière's death is imminent, but he refuses to admit it. The people around him — Armande and La Forest, with the help of Dufresne (Matt DeCaro), an actor who has played a doctor for so many years that he’s begun to think he is one; Baron (Michael Patrick Trimm), an ambitious young actor gunning for both Moliere’s role and his wife; and, one of the four thankless roles played by David Whalen — scurry to try to manage the situation to their own benefits.
Armande wants Molière to sign a renunciation of his life’s work in the theater to avoid posthumous ex-communication from the Catholic Church. Dufresne believes that Molière's respiratory illness is caused by a blockage in his bowels and tries repeatedly throughout the play to administer a course of enemas as a cure. Baron hopes to persuade Molière that he is too ill to go on stage so that Baron may perform as his understudy. There’s also a drunken musketeer with traditional values (Whalen), a roving priest with a vendetta against Molière (Tony Bingham), and at least one (possibly two) additional one-dimensional character(s) also assigned to Whalen. Meanwhile, Molière tries to get everyone to leave him alone so he can eagerly await the King, who may or may not be, but probably isn’t, attending the show.
Bradbury’s script is strong, especially in its alignment with Molière's values, artistic interests, and raucous sensibility. The inclusion of many of Molière's favorite stock characters — the crafty servant, and a cartoonish doctor and priest who respectively stand in for the playwright's longstanding grudges against the church and the medical profession — as well as Molière's placement in the middle as a kind of a straight man, reflects Bradbury’s deep engagement with his source material.
I was not won over by Paul and Bradbury’s attempt to construe forced enemas as slapstick comedy, and I found no legitimate reason to give the priest a hunchback other than to mock him, which is cruel and superfluous (even if the hunchback was merely an element of disguise, which the play doesn’t really address).
But the cast, mostly veterans of the Pittsburgh stage, produces sharp comedic timing, which supports their successful execution of something rather rare, a funny comedy about a character’s impending death. And Whalen pitches in with a surprise performance in the play’s final moments and sells his fourth turn as one of the play’s plot devices.
The Illustrious Invalid. Continues through June 26. City Theatre. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. $20-45. (Pay-what-you-want on June 20.) kinetictheatre.org