The opening sequence of Combustible Company's "The Imaginary Invalid" — an endless loop of television commercials touting such mysteriously named substances as Cymbalta, Spiriva, Nexium and Astellas — might have mystified Molière, but the playwright would have been right at home with this production's irreverent sendup of modern medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.
While a bright and bouncy adaptation by Oded Gross and Tracy Young sets this classic comedy squarely in the present and sprinkles it with lively Motown-inspired musical numbers, the central premise of "The Imaginary Invalid" remains the same. Wealthy and irascible hypochondriac Argan (Erik Hoover) has convinced himself that he's dying and his doctors are more than happy to agree.
He decides to reduce the cost of his mounting bills for ridiculous medical quackery (protein enema, anyone?) by marrying off one of his daughters to a medical student. She, of course, has other ideas. Clever servant Toinette (Ashawnti Sakina Ford) comes to the rescue with a wily scheme that delivers a happy ending to almost everyone.
Director Kym Longhi and an enthusiastic cast offer a wildly farcical and occasionally poignant take on Argan's dilemma. Ford's Toinette is a clear-eyed realist with a sharp tongue and warmly appealing sense of fun. Her masquerade as a Scottish medical expert is one of the comic highlights of the show, while her tolerant cynicism provides a nice contrast to the petulance and childish credulity of Hoover's Argan.
The rest of the cast ranges from the ridiculous — Joni Griffith and Ricky Morisseau as a pair of swoony, star-crossed lovers — to the grotesque — Isaac Bont and Jonathan Saliger as a couple of rock star doctors out of a psychedelic music video. Standouts include Antonio Duke, who delivers a gently humorous performance as Argan's brother, Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel, as Toinette's skeptical brother, and Julianna Drajko, who lends steamy pizazz and sharp comic timing to her role as Argan's less-than-loyal wife.
While this romp runs a little long at 2 ½ hours, Longhi keeps the piece in almost constant motion. Actors roller-skate, wheel and crawl across the stage, while Paul Herwig's set design, consisting of a wall of cabinets, provides constant surprises as various characters and props pop in and out. There's even a little improvisation thrown in as Sakamoto-Wengel's character seeks inspiration from the audience.
No sight gag is too corny, no pratfall too broad for Combustible's boisterous production. It delivers a sharp-edged jab at the pharmaceutical industry, a poignant reminder that life is about more than just avoiding death, and laughter that's free from any serious side effects.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.