Peter Dinklage inThe Imaginary Invalid
(© Cory Weaver)
Peter Dinklage in
The Imaginary Invalid
(© Cory Weaver)
Theatergoers will find that there's ample reason to smile about Erica Schmidt's new production of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid from the moment they walk into the theater at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College until the moment they leave.

Scenic designer Laura Jellinek has put not one, but two floors (and indicates a third) of a 17th-century French home in the middle of theater, placing audiences on either side of her handsome and whimsical Escheresque creation, which turns out to be the perfect environment for this daffy and riotously funny production that features a superlative all-male cast.

The show begins by inducing giggles as audiences meet elderly hypochondriac Argan (Ethan Phillips) as he begrudgingly settles his ever-mounting medical bills for a variety of treatments. Most of what Argan's paying for are ludicrously scatological and, in Schmidt's contemporary-sounding adaptation, have a wonderfully conceived homeopathic sound to them.

Soon, audiences will find themselves laughing as Argan's chief foil, his pert and diabolically clever maid Toinette (Peter Dinklage), arrives on the scene. She has no patience for her employer's maladies and is unafraid to cross him. And when she discovers that he's decided to marry off his daughter Angelique (Preston Sadleir) to the dimwitted Thomas Darréah (imbued with a hysterical array of tics by Henry Vick), in order to bring a doctor into the family, Toinette, like all good commedia dell'arte harlequins, works to ensure that her master's plans are thwarted.

Toinette's not alone in her endeavors to bring an end to the proposed marriage. Cléante (Danny Binstock), the young man whom Angelique truly loves, is on hand to help as is Argan's own brother, the decidedly straightforward Béralde (Mark Junek). Even Argan's mercenary wife, Béline (Zachary Booth), inadvertently helps in the matter as she pursues her own agenda to ensure that she inherits all of her husband's fortune with the help of a charlatan lawyer (Kevin Cahoon in one of two pitch-perfect turns).

It's all goofy satirical stuff that the company plays with comic zealousness brings to mind the sort of behavior often found in classic Looney Tunes cartoons. For instance, when Béline hears of Argan's plans to gift her some of his money, Booth's eyes instantly turn to the size of saucers, blazing with greed, and one can hear the cash register "ka-ching" as they do. Similarly, before Angelique and Cléante share a duet (which the performers render so badly its side-splittingly funny), Sadleir begins to pant like a small puppy that's gone into heat.

And then, there's the work of the two central players. Phillips' Argan is a model of crotchety self-obsession, who, shares a remarkable comic chemistry with Dinklage, whose superlatively crafted Toinette is a barrage of basso wisecracks, faux feminine wiles, and scampering mischievousness.

The cast's overemphatic playing could very well misfire, but Schmidt has perfectly calibrated the lunacy. In fact, the acting style is actually enhanced by her decision to use an all-male cast. The artifice of it all -- just like the set itself which proclaims its presence so forcefully and Andrea Lauer's over-the-top period costume designs -- is laid out as if to say "Here, have fun with us." Theatergoers do, both joyously and gratefully.