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July 17, 2012 6:00 pm
One Man, Two Guvnors, the London import currently on Broadway, now has competition as the funniest evening with a New York address. Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt, vies equally for big laughs – and frequently achieves them. The downside to this sleek, 100-minute, interval-less evening, at least for city folk, is that it is taking place only until Sunday in upstate New York, a two-and-a-quarter-hour drive from Manhattan.
But the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, at Bard College, where the Molière is delighting audiences as part of Bard Summerscape, is an architectural gem worth the trek. And I have never seen a designer – Laura Jellinek, in this instance – use the Frank Gehry space more imaginatively. The audience sit on either side of an elevated platform, indicating a 17th-century French home, and observe characters underneath go about their scheming business.
All parts are played by men, a conceit that always has me wondering why so few professional productions are entirely women. But I would happily see Molière done by a pack of dachshunds if the results were half as hilarious as they are here.
Peter Dinklage is Toinette, the quintessentially pert maid to hypochondriac Argan; Ethan Phillips assumes the role in which Molière himself collapsed onstage in February 1673, dying a few hours later. Argan wishes his daughter, Angélique, to marry a doctor rather than Angélique’s choice, Cléante. Aiding in the effort to derail Argan’s plan is his brother, Béralde, whose interpreter, Mark Junek, provides impeccable underplaying to counter the lunacy of the rest of the ensemble.
Part of the beauty of this Invalid is the fluency with which Schmidt marries period detail with contemporary intonations. Argan’s medical treatments, for example, carry a homeopathic overtone. (They are also frequently scatological.) Another part of the beauty is the sparring among the cast, especially Henry Vick as Thomas Diaforius and Danny Binstock as Cléante.
The chief reason to book the bus to Bard is Dinklage. I’ve watched him work his way through classic and contemporary roles off-Broadway over the past decade, acquitting himself sometimes passably, sometimes brilliantly. When he achieved wide fame over the past year in the first two seasons of television’s Game of Thrones, often outshining members of London’s theatrical royalty, I was not surprised. You simply don’t mess with his Tyrion Lannister on that programme – unless you want your head on a pike. The risks involved in attempting to thwart his Toinette are less treacherous, but only barely.
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