Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid gets trimmed down from three acts to a fast-moving fifty-minutes as Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre presents Roger K. Weiss’s The Hypochondriac, and thought results fall short of the brilliance of December’s A Christmas Carol, there are laughs aplenty to be had.

Starring as the titular “Malade Imaginaire” is director-adaptor Weiss, whose Argan simply cannot live without daily care from pharmacist Mr. Flores (Paul Meyd) and his personal physician Dr. Purgon (Meyd again, in bald wig).

In fact, so in need of medical professionals at his beck and call is Argan that he has promised the hand of his daughter Abigail (Hannah Kaplan) in marriage to neophyte physician Thomas Caraby (Steve Alloway), the son of Argan’s MD friend Victor (Ken Jones).

TheHypochondriac@ZJU_PHOTO_1 Little does Argan know that Abby has marital plans of her own—to stoner dude Anthony (Cameron West)—nor is the hypochondriac aware that his Rubenesque wife Belinda (Rebecca Santini) is in it only for the jewels, saving her ample bosom for men more sexually vigorous than her ever-ailing spouse.

Overseeing all of the above, and providing acerbic commentary on the action, is leggy maid Toni (Nakisa Aschtiani), who may be the only one to have her boss’s interests rather than her own at heart, and thus concocts a stratagem to expose the quacks and gold-diggers around him.

The Hypochondriac starts off with a clever pre-show bang with actual physicians (who just happen to be dead ringers for the cast) circulating amongst the audience in search of contagious germs and providing face masks to those who might be at risk of infecting those around them.

And then we’re off into Moliere land as seen through the eyes of Zombie Joe’s Underground (though minus the blood and living dead likely to show up at one of ZJU’s grislier offerings).

Audience hypochondriacs (or friends thereof) will find much to identify with and laugh about in Argan’s ineffectual quest for health (though heaven help the reformed hypochondriac left with no more worries to occupy his ample free time).

The Hypochondriac’s blend of contraction-free “classical speech” with a fuckload of four-letter words can be awkward at times, but there’s no denying that most of playwright Weiss’s jokes—both verbal and physical—hit their marks. (Even in Mother’s Day Sunday’s sparser-that-usual house, the laughter was virtually non-stop.)

TheHypochondriac@ZJU_PHOTO_3 The Hypochondriac’s cast of eight could scarcely be having more fun onstage, with cute, bubbly, ball-of-fire Kaplan doing the evening’s best—and most refreshingly natural—work as Argan’s high-spirited daughter. West’s sexy slacker Anthony is another winner in Bill & Ted tradition, and shows off rapper chops opposite Kaplan’s zesty pop vocals when posing as Abby’s “music instructor.”

Weiss’s Argan provides ample food-for-laughter as well, raven-haired firecracker Aschtiani can wisecrack with the best of them, and Meyd makes for a fabulous Mr. Flores in addition to his straighter-laced (and straighter-appearing) Dr. Purgon.

TheHypochondriac@ZJU_PHOTO_5 Alloway is a hoot-and-a-half as would-be (and sadly inept) suitor Thomas, and does a running-gag thing with his hair that never outstays its welcome.

The curvaceous Santini attacks the role of Belinda with deadpan zest, though both she and Jones could work on giving their characters the line-reading-free spontaneity that Kaplan in particular brings to hers.

Last December’s A Christmas Carol demonstrated just how much can be done on blackbox stage without what is commonly known as “scenic design.” The Hypochondriac, by contrast, could use more than just Argan’s single chair, the production’s virtually furniture-free playing area leaving little for a stageful of actors to do but stand side-by-side police line-up style, though an upstairs “window” does get some inventive use. Lighting, one of A Christmas Carol’s strongest design elements, is pretty must lights-up, lights-down this time round.

Santini scores high marks for her hip-hopping choreography and Jacqueline Baxter for her vocal coaching. Weiss (in lyricist mode) and composer Kevin Van Cott have written the original song performed by Kaplan and West, with Weiss wearing additional hats for his bouncy sound design and as “tech guru.”

The Hypochondriac is produced by Zombie Joe. Denise Devin and Joe receive program credit as “ZJU family advisors.”

Perhaps no other L.A. company has acquired as devoted a cult following over the past several years as Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, with titles like Urban Death, Blistered Hands And Bloody Mouths, Whore’s Bath, and Attack Of The Rotting Corpses providing fun-and-gore seekers with just what the doctor ordered.

The Hypochondriac illustrates another ZJU specialty, trimmed-down classics, including shortened adaptations of Richard III, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet, the latter of which scored A Noise Within’s Rafael Goldstein an LADCC Lead Actor nomination.

While not likely to win any awards this time round, Zombie Joe’s latest does largely what it is supposed to do. It makes you laugh, and we’ve all heard what Reader’s Digest has to say about you-know-what being the best medicine.

Those with ills to cure and fifty-odd minutes to spare can do far worse than to make an appointment to see The Hypochondriac.

ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 11, 2014
Photos: Roger K. Weiss

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