By Sharon Eberson
The highest praise for a comedy that strives to honor the French master Moliere is that it pummels hypocrisy and is as thought-provoking as it is laugh-inducing.
Simon Bradbury’s The Illustrious Invalid accomplishes all of the above. This madcap world premiere is as hilarious as a play with a running joke about enemas, that ultimately is about the death and redemption of a comedic genius, can be.
The Kinetic Theatre production reunites director Andrew Paul with a cast of frequent and recent collaborators, including Bradbury as Moliere. With passion and vigor to spare, he plays the unapologetic, unrelenting 17th-century playwright, who is determined to star in his own high-octane farce, The Imaginary Invalid, while in the final throes of consumption.
As a writer, Bradbury matches Moliere’s penchant for uproarious antics layered with social satire, with a play that won the prestigious Liverpool Hope Playwrighting Prize for comedy in 2017.
Taking aim at the hypocrisy of the church during the time of the Inquisition and ridiculing doctors could be hazardous to a 17th-century Frenchman’s health. There are some insults even the patronage of King Louis XIV couldn’t fix, yet Moliere pressed his luck in works such as Tartuffe and Don Juan.
However, it was consumption that killed Moliere, and as such, Bradbury enters coughing.
Then the madness begins.
The production does not skimp on the vulgarity that mark Moliere’s works, but it is “in the style of,” rather than an attempt at a carbon copy. Although taking place in Moliere’s time, little has been done to conceal accents born of the United States or UK, and idioms are decidedly in the latter vernacular.
At its best, The Illustrious Invalid is dually of its day while also justifying modern eyes and tickling today’s funny bones.
Bradbury’s play is not a history lesson, in the same way Lin-Manuel Miranda did not rely 100% on facts to create Hamilton. He takes the circumstances of Moliere’s death – the playwright collapsed onstage and was taken home to die, at age 51 – and molds his own story around that and other historical tidbits
For example, the relationship between Bradbury’s Moliere and his actress wife, Armande (the luminous Joanna Strapp), here brings some sentimentality into the farce. It does not include that she was the sister of his first wife – and that centuries have not erased the gossip that she may have been Moliere’s daughter.
The Illustrious Invalid also pushes the playwright’s great works to the background – Tartuffe gets barely a mention here.
Instead, it is about an egocentric actor, theater leader and writer who tells truth to power, and is facing death with oh, so many obstacles in his path.
There’s the troupe’s aspiring leading man (Michael Patrick Trimm, showing his comedy chops), who is courting Moliere’s wife and wants to take over for him onstage as well.
And then there’s the hilarious Matt DeCaro as the deluded Dufresne, an actor who has played a doctor so often, he believes he alone can cure what ails Moliere – and it involves enemas and a bug-spray-like contraption.
There’s also the Musketeer who has it in for Moliere, a priest determined to exorcise his demons, and his wife, who is desperate to get Moliere to renounce his life as an actor – a practice that allowed those in the profession and their families to be given last rights and to be buried in consecrated ground.
Yet, could there be anything more abhorrent to a man such as Moliere than to erase his life’s work with the stroke of a pen?
And all the while, in a delusional near-death state, all Moliere wants is impress the King, who he feels sure will be in attendance for his performance.
The entire play takes place in a sprawling dressing room with one door, which Moliere gets caught behind now and again.
One of the best entrances through that doorway belongs to Tony Bingham, who inhabits the role of the “deranged priest” with wild-eyed gusto.
He also has a scene that unpacks a lot about how the play reflects Moliere’s times.
In orgasmic detail, Bingham’s priest describes the reliably restrained work of Moliere’s artistic nemesis, the dramatist Jean Racine. Horrified, Moliere wonders aloud, did the priest read that in a review?
The oft-mentioned, unseen Racine represents historical differences between two of the foremost playwrights of French classicism: Racine, known for his tragedies and poetic form, and Moliere’s vulgar “social comedies.”
It’s hard to tell which pains Bradbury’s Moliere more: That others use Racine’s writing with “restraint” as a compliment, or the pursuit of the enema-obsessed Dufresne.
Helping Dufresne in this pursuit – it’s a farce; there’s a lot of pursuing going on – is Moliere’s devoted servant, portrayed by Derdriu Ring. The comic timing that propelled Bradbury and Ring to share Post-Gazette Performers of the Year honors in 2010 (for the Paul-directed Hobson’s Choice) also is at play here.
Paul and these actors have worked together before, whether at the then PICT Irish & Classical Theatre or at Kinetic, perhaps none more than David Whalen. It’s fun to watch Whalen having a grand ol’ time playing multiple characters and, while in character, letting the audience know just how he feels about not getting the arc he so richly deserves.
Others break the Fourth Wall between actors and audience, but none more so than Whalen, as the theater company’s manager, a Musketeer and others.
This is Kinetic’s second production on City Theatre’s campus, following Oscar & Walt in November of last year, but this time on the larger Mainstage.
The expansive shabby-chic set by Johnmichael Bohach allows the actors room for hilarious hijinks, and the costumes, including a gorgeous peach gown worn by Strapp, are designed by Carnegie Mellon graduate student Grace Kang.
In a preshow announcement on opening night Saturday, Paul thanked Mark Clayton Southers, the leader of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, who was in attendance. COVID concerns forced Paul to move his design team away from the South Side, and Southers came to Kinetic’s rescue by employing his workshop to construct the set, then haul and mount it on City’s stage.
That spirit of collaboration, with Kinetic Theatre on a City stage with the help of Pittsburgh Playwrights, has permeated the comeback of theater in Pittsburgh.
We can be thankful that Paul, who resides in Las Vegas, has continued to gather his troupes and come back to his former artistic home with gems such as this world-premiere production. Think of The Illustrious Invalid as requiring that you leave your cares behind and give yourself permission to laugh. And if not, you may just find yourself laughing in spite of yourself.
Kinetic Theatre’s The Illustrious Invalid is at City Theatre’s Mainstage, 1300 Bingham St., South Side, through June 26. Details: kinetictheatre.org. Tickets: citytheatre.culturaldistrict.org/production/81959 or 412-431-2489.