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When most contemporary troupes tackle Molière, they really tackle him. Cleats first. It’s not uncommon to find directors pummeling his sparkling 17th-century comedies into life with slapstick that would shame the Three Stooges. Stylized posturing and lace-trimmed costumes notwithstanding, the antics in such productions often owe as much to vaudeville as to the commedia dell’arte traditions Molière spent much of his time reworking, but no matter what the form, the impulse is the same. Frenzied brightness invariably rules.

So it’s a bit of a shock when the French-language company Le Néon begins L’Amour Médecin (Love is the Best Doctor) with a dirgelike minuet, the mournful cry “Molière is ill…Molière is dying,” and the arrival of the ashen, exhausted playwright in the doorway of a somber, sheet-draped laundry room. How, you wonder, could laughter possibly spring from such environs? What seems most in the air is tragedy.

Insane, no?

Well, against all odds, the insanity works. Works surprisingly well, in fact, suggesting that with delicate handling, certain 17th-century theatrical conventions can still be effective in an approximation of their original form.

It helps that L’Amour Médecin is hardly the sort of literary classic in which the script can be held sacrosanct. It’s a royally commissioned trifle—a 1665 sketch about love and medical quackery that was written, rehearsed, and performed all in the space of five days. From the first, it was designed to be padded with music, ballet, and improvisation, and that’s precisely what Le Néon has done, in a framing device that brings Molière onstage as actor/manager of his own troupe.

There’s a logic to the ploy. On Feb. 17, 1673, Molière fell ill while performing, ironically enough, the title role in his own The Imaginary Invalid. Though he managed to get through the curtain calls, he forever cemented his reputation for satirical sharpness by dying in his lodgings later the same evening.

Le Néon’s production imagines what might have happened on his way home had his distraught actors been left to their own devices in lightening his final hours. When Molière (Didier Rousselet) steps through that laundry-room door in the evening’s opening moments, presumably taking some sort of shortcut to his bedroom, he’s physically supported by members of his acting company. Still, even with their help, it takes the better part of three minutes for the great man to struggle across the room. So there, amid damp linens and piles of empty baskets, the actors settle him in a chair and sit listlessly as he rests. One of them absent-mindedly thumbs through a nearby sheaf of papers, reading aloud from the coversheet, “Love is the Best Doctor: A Comedy…Act 1, Scene 1…” and notes that Molière’s chin lifts off his chest as he hears those words. When she speaks a few lines of dialogue, his eyes open slightly. A few more, and he’s reciting along with her. Soon, to the troupe’s relief, he’s casting roles (reserving the star part for himself, of course) and exhibiting a bit of his usual verve.

All of this is extraneous to Molière’s L’Amour Médecin, which, as the performers read and act it out (in French with simultaneous English translation on headsets), is revealed to be a sort of mix-and-match affair with plot devices cribbed freely from Molière’s other comedies. It chiefly concerns a skinflint who doesn’t want his daughter to marry so he can keep her dowry, a handsome idiot who’s in love with the daughter, and a servant crafty enough to help them outwit the old man. The servant’s scheme is that the daughter will feign illness, and when the four famous doctors her dad calls can’t figure out what’s wrong, her lover will arrive disguised as a physician, diagnose that his girlfriend is “lovesick,” and cure her with a supposedly mock wedding that to the skinflint’s horror will turn out to be legally valid.

Along the way, obviously, much fun can be made of the medical profession. In fact, the entire second act of this brief, intermissionless evening revolves around some very specific character assassination aimed at prominent Parisian physicians whose remedies in that pre-scientific age (mostly emetics, bleeding, and other purgatives) were every bit as likely to kill patients as most ailments were.

It’s in this sequence that Molière’s writing turns cheekiest (“What do you want with four doctors?” servant asks skinflint. “Isn’t one enough to kill a person?”) and where Le Néon’s staging concept comes together with an almost audible snap. The first act’s improvisations haven’t made much use of the stage’s laundry-room trappings, but the opportunity to lampoon quacks brings out a nasty streak in the actors, who begin tying baskets to every available appendage—arms, feet, asses, heads—and turning themselves into grandly silly, beaked and bustled birds of prey. As they cluck ridiculous diagnoses and engage in hen-fights over treatments, the evening becomes precisely the sort of satiric romp audiences have come to associate with Molière.

(Incidentally, Le Néon’s penchant for quasi-balletic, broadly stylized productions serves it well here and may account for the fact that L’Amour Médecin, in addition to its other strengths, is the first production to look comfortable on the Spectrum’s broad, shallow, decidedly awkward stage. Other companies take note: There’s a way to make the place work.)

Still, there’s a darker side to this production, and director Rousselet (who, like Molière, tends to play the leads in his productions) makes sure it stays in the foreground even when things get raucous. For at the core of Le Néon’s reworking of what would otherwise be a very slight satire about doctors, the company has placed a genuinely dying playwright. And this bold, deliberately laugh-squelching choice lends the evening a surprising weight and grace.

Rousselet, when he’s playing Molière-the-actor, seems to have just enough strength to puff himself up as the old skinflint, but between scenes his Molière-the-director is getting visibly weaker with every passing moment. An accomplished mime, Rousselet charts this downward spiral entirely—and evocatively—through gesture. And he’s surrounded on stage by a troupe that seems well schooled in his methods. Mikael Manoukian is particularly amusing as an actor who can’t remember lines to save his life, Dominique Montet is resourceful in bouncing from her role in the framing device as Molière’s grieving wife to her role in the play as the sweetly beguiling daughter, and Patricia Buignet is appropriately acerbic as the servant who propels the action. The golden glow cast by Martha Mountain’s lighting and the textured fabrics and peculiarly shaped wickerwork that Justine Scherer and Anne-Marie Berthier have draped across stage and actors alike are sure assets as well.

But they’re all in the service of a rewarding, if eccentric, directorial concept that initially seems annoying, wrongheaded, and lugubrious and ends up being the one true star of the evening. Granted, it’s odd for a company to expend so much energy lending grace to a work that doesn’t ask for it. Equally odd to pay more attention to elegance than to mirth in the mounting of a comedy—especially one by Molière. Still, it’s hard to argue with the result.CP