American Conservatory Theater’s world-premiere adaptation of 17th-century French playwright Moliere’s last play, “The Imaginary Invalid,” begins with a trio of doctors in commedia masks singing a Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque ditty about being quacks (“If it ducks, then it’s a quack,” goes the refrain).
It seems a bit tame for the yuk-a-minute satire of the medical profession that we’re expecting, and it’s followed by a fairly subdued monologue in which the hypochondriac Argan whines, moans, mutters, hyperventilates, checks his pulse, farts, hacks and generally confides to us his various imagined ills.
As it turns out, the joy of this production is precisely in how it picks up speed — and outrageousness and hilarity — in an almost insidiously organic way. Before you know it, you’re cracking up.
The story, abbreviated in this two-act version: Miserly Argan wants to marry his daughter off to his quack doc’s god-awful doctor nephew so there’ll be a free, on-call physician in the family. But his daughter’s in love with a handsome suitor, who arrives posing as her new music teacher (although he’s tone-deaf) to declare to her his undying passion. Meanwhile, Argan’s evil second wife is plotting with the local notary to have his daughter sent to a convent and get her greedy hands on her husband’s fortune. The knowing maid sees all, and eventually sets gullible Argan straight.
American playwright Constance Congdon’s adaptation is enormously clever, a smooth mix of classical-sounding language and modernisms, replete with double entendres and sexual innuendoes. And under Ron Lagomarsino’s direction, the farcical action thankfully never feels forced. Husky John Apicella is a wonderfully believable, even sympathetic Argan.
The rest of the ensemble’s terrific, too: René Augesen as his preening, diabolical wife (a clap of thunder precedes her entrances); Nancy Dussault as his unflappable maid; Anthony Fusco as both the scheming notary with a greasy goatee and pompadour, and an apothecary who arrives, with what looks like a medieval torture device, to give Argan his daily enema.
Then there’s the Tweedledee-and-Tweedledum-like Steven Anthony Jones and Gregory Wallace as, respectively, the fat and pompous quack doctor and his blank-faced, slow-witted nephew in Coke-bottle glasses (the nephew’s medical intellect unsullied by modern discoveries or scientific thought, boasts his uncle), both elaborately bewigged (amazingly over-the-top costumes by Beaver Bauer).
Allison Jean White hits just the right notes as the self-absorbed, lovelorn daughter, a perfect match for Jud Williford as her handsome suitor who’s forever striking heroic and ardent poses; the impromptu opera that they improvise in the second act is one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen onstage, and worth the price of admission alone.
Fabian Obispo’s sound design and original music add to the general merriment, as does Erik Flatmo’s dizzily off-kilter set that perfectly mirrors Argan’s self-obsession and anxiety.
The Imaginary Invalid ****
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; closes July 8
Tickets: $16 to $70
Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org