THE HARVARD DRAMA CLUB'S production of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid is an intermittently funny hodge-podge of styles and gimmicks. Unable to put enough juice into the show by playing it straight, director Liz Coe has cleaned out the props room in search of slight humor. Her inventiveness works occasionally, but not quite often enough to rescue the evening.
Moliere's play concerns a hypochondriac, Argan, who wants his daughter Angelique to marry a doctor, though she meanwhile has fallen in love with a musician. At the same time, Argan's wife schemes to get his fortune, and his brother tries to cure him of his hypochondria.
It's pretty old stuff, and very hard to bring off (especially when it lacks the sparkle Richard Wilbur's verse translation has given other Moliere plays). It calls, not just for good actors, but for expert farceurs. The cast at the Loeb is very earnest and energetic, but rarely brings the play to life. The two leads, Ralph Martin as Argan and Melissa Mueller as his saucy, scheming maid Toinette, mug and ham it up endlessly, but it just doesn't make us laugh.
What Liz Coe decided to do in this situation evidently, was to throw sense and consistency to the winds. At the beginning of each act, characters come out and sing clever rock parodies, using Moliere's lyrics and music by Michael Gury, Ed Zwick, and Mark Hunter. Argan adds up his medical bills on an old-fashioned adding machine (meanwhile writing down the totals with a quill pen). Toinette makes her first appearance on roller skates, and after a while takes them off and goes through the rest of the play in shoes. The daughter's lover, Cleante, comes to the house carrying the sheet music for Love Story--and so on, providing an occasional laugh, but destroying any kind of comic consistency. The audience feels it's being forced to laugh, and never feels entirely comfortable about it.
There is one point in the play, however, when everything works--a screamingly funny scene in which the young doctor whom Argan intends for his daughter pays his first visit. Bill Fuller is short, fat and funny-looking, with a high-pitched voice and a great pair of pointed French eyebrows. His carefully rehearsed speeches to his prospective father-in-law and wife steal the scene, and some business he has with a glass of milk and Nestle's Quik is the high point of the show.
The Imaginary Invalid is meticulously produced and directed (the only problem on opening night was a door that just wouldn't stay shut). What it lacks, simply, is the great acting necessary to make it come alive for modern audiences. The acting at the Loeb just doesn't quite measure up, and all the roller skates and adding machines in the world can't cover up for that.