By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If she weren't so stinkin' crazy, Annie Wilkes would be a writer's best friend. In Misery, the highly enjoyable stage play of the Stephen King novel now eliciting laughs and screams at Richardson Theatre Centre, Annie (played with slow-building furor by Rachael Lindley) cajoles and coddles the author whose books she knows by heart. Paul Sheldon (David Brown) writes best-selling bodice-ripper romances starring a heroine named Misery Chastain. "What if 'misery' were a person?" Paul asks rhetorically in the voiceover before the lights come up. Little does he know.
After a car crash in a blizzard, Paul wakes up in Annie's guest room, where she's tending his injuries and keeping him out of physical misery on a heavy painkiller called Novril. Days become weeks, and as Paul comes to realize he's more hostage than house guest, Annie persuades him to play Scheherazade, writing a new novel chapter by chapter to resurrect the heroine he killed off in what he hoped would be Misery's swan song.
Annie's a terrific editor. She berates Paul when his writing cheats the plot and corrects him when he goofs details. When he falls behind on deadline, OK, she gets a bit harsh. No real editor would resort to "hobbling" to keep a writer working, but a few probably wish they could.
Misery the play (adapted for the stage by Simon Moore) can't begin to live up to the movie version that won Kathy Bates her Oscar. But it's a surprisingly tight little thriller, stripped down to just the two characters and set in the claustrophobic confines of Annie's house.
For RTC's production, director Regan Adair wisely keeps it simple. He lets Lindley erupt only a few times into Annie's volcanic rage. She's a far scarier presence when she recedes into the shadows to tell Paul why her nursing career went sour and what exactly she's going to do to him with that ax.
When the acting finally gets under way, it's a relief to find Chamblee Ferguson, a master at broad comedy, in the lead. Here he plays Argan, a miserly old coot obsessed with what he believes to be his failing health. A target of greedy doctors and pharmacists, Argan downs tonics and potions by the gallon and charts the progress of food through his GI tract like a general moving his troops. His only wish is for free round-the-clock health care, so he arranges a marriage between his oldest daughter, Angelique (Kate Cook), and his doctor's son (Baldwin again and in better form as a comic actor than he is as guitarist). The doctors' surname is Diarrheas, which allows a line about "any other Diarrheases running around loose."
Molière loved skewering the medical profession. The Hypochondriac portrays physicians as arrogant ignoramuses and Argan as their willing victim. The only intelligent person anywhere near Argan is Toinette, the nosy maid (Emily Gray) who finally cures her master of his woes by persuading him to go to medical school.
Classical Acting Company specializes in old tropes that call for bustles and frills. Their seasons pay homage to Shakespeare and Chekhov and other authors most theatergoers are weary of. Sometimes they hit, and sometimes they miss. This one is half and half. Molière at least wrote for laughs--and Ferguson gets his share--but the pacing of director Eve Hartmann's production manages to stifle much of the humor under clod-footed blocking and a first act that slogs well into a second hour.
The Hypochondriac is performed in a smallish space where chairs are close, stage lights many and air conditioning feeble. Into the third hour, the heat becomes oppressive, and the weak jokes nibble at the nerve endings. Act 2 provides three false endings and finally limps to a close with a long improvisational segment involving Argan, junk Latin, audience participation and a troop of masked players (for a moment it looks like it might spoof the orgy sequence in Eyes Wide Shut, but that's allowing too much credit for wit).
Just before The Hypochondriac becomes a prescription for heatstroke (bring on the Novril!), it finally comes to a close. Molière didn't survive it, poor thing. On February 17, 1673, while playing Argan, the actor-playwright fell into a coughing fit in the final scene, suffered a hemorrhage and died. And if anybody asked, "Is there a doctor in the house?" that night, it probably got a huge laugh.