The production of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid at the Cleveland Play House suffers from a major handicap right off the bat--the curtain goes up. Kent Dorsey's setting is impressive enough--with its crystal chandelier, lush carpet, hardwood floor, and oversized statues in neoclassical niches. And Lindsay W. Davis's baroque purple-and-red velvet contraptions under the name of costumes (his double-scrolled doctor hats got the biggest laughs of the evening, in their resemblance to that of Oz's Munchkin mortician). The trouble begins when the actors start to speak.
First off, the 1950 translation by Milles Malleson decimated Moliere's witty prose, rendering it into banal summer-stock repartee badly in need of a laugh track. (Sample dialogue: "You remember what he promised you--a vigorous middle age." "A fat chance I should stand--with one arm and one eye!") The actors have fifty-year-old cobwebs coming out of their mouths.
Besides making Moliere appear to have no more skill than the book writer of some moldy operetta without its score, it also pinches the Master's lofty spirit like a too-tight pair of shoes, by truncating the material and throwing out the original allegorical prologue and three of the imaginative balletic interludes as originally written--making the work neither fish nor fowl.
Moliere's last play concerns the all-consuming devotion to the medical profession of a deluded hypochondriac, whose infatuation with his assumed illnesses makes him blind to the chaos of his own household.
This type of production holds meager compensation for academic or ordinary theatergoers seeking entertainment. All the men look like road company Captain Hooks, and all the corseted ma'amselles look like they would trade their very plumes for a role in The Three Musketeers. When audience members begin to speculate how the play might be improved if the chandelier fell or if the trapdoor opened, swallowing up all the hollow chattering of these would-be French magpies, it's a sure sign of something amiss behind all the pomp and velvet.
The crime here is not incompetence (which is a shame, for that at least can be fun), but rather soul-killing academic efficiency. Director Peter Hackett rarely injects life into his production, with two major exceptions. Martha Libman, as the invalid's younger daughter, decked in pink hair ribbons and girlish insouciance, delivers fresh oxygen as the eternal manipulating brat, biting her father's finger in girlish spite.
David O. Frazier, who has proven himself over the years to be the funniest over-forty actor in Cleveland, is the only one who seems to have internalized his Moliere; by contrast, the other performers seem shallow automatons. Frazier may not be exploring the depths of humanity either, but at least he knows how to sparkle authentically. In his buttons and bows, he is the personification of pomposity and outrage. In his brief stint, he wakes the audience out of their torpor and lights the stage like a living Christmas tree. It is a melancholy thought to consider what he might have brought to the title role, if the powers that be had shown some ingenuity.
Whatever Moliere intended this play to be, it certainly had to be something better and more than what is currently being dished up on the Play House boards. If this hit of 1673 had suffered such lackluster treatment on opening night, it's doubtful it would have been remembered by 1674.
The Imaginary Invalid, through June 6 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000.