Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2007
For about twelve hours after leaving the Theater Barn I was convinced that I was losing it. What had I missed? Here was a highly touted, Tony-nominated comedy by a well known and well established playwright, and I didn’t get it. After watching Michael Marotta’s production of Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, I failed to understand what it’s central message was. Turns out it doesn’t have one. I am greatly relieved.
I think the two things that threw me were the title and the surrealism inherent in the first act. I was expecting a morality play, and morality plays have morals. The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife has plenty of morals, but there is no moral to the story. This is fairly standard situation comedy a la early Neil Simon with only a hint of the risqué, gender-bending satire of some of Busch’s other works. This play is Charles Busch Goes Mainstream, and it is satisfying to neither the mainstream nor to Busch aficionados.
When we first meet Marjorie Taub (Nancy Evans), the titular allergist’s wife, she is home following a suicide attempt and public nervous breakdown in a Disney Store. Her therapist has just died and she is a wreck. Nothing about her beautiful upper West Side condo, her designer wardrobe, or her loving and highly successful husband Ira (Sky Vogel) makes her happy. Now in her 50’s, her two daughters grown and gone, Marjorie has lived a life of overwhelming leisure spent desperately pursuing fulfillment in intellectual elitism and frenetic volunteer work. But she realizes that she has achieved nothing more than mediocrity in all her endeavors. The one legitimate thorn in her side is her elderly mother Frieda (Marie Allocca) who lives down the hall and who has constant bowel troubles.
Then a woman claiming to be a long-lost childhood friend appears on her doorstep. Marjorie’s relationship with Lee Green, nee Lillian Greenblat, (Diana Bradley) transforms her. It brings her back to the land of the living and ultimately helps her realize the value of her home and family.
Busch is a prolific playwright and a drag artist. He frequently plays the female leads in his plays, and I understand he has played the character of Marjorie in short skits prior to the writing of this full-length play. That surprised me because as I watched the show I had imagined him in the role of Lee. Certainly having either of the leading female roles played by a man would make this a very different show, but as far as I know no major production has cast it that way. The successful New York production, which opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club and transferred in 2000 to Broadway for a two-year run starred Linda Lavin as Marjorie and Michelle Lee as Lee. Marotta has two well-qualified and attractive performers in Evans and Bradley, but neither of them hits the mark 100% of the time. When they do click they do very well indeed. Evans is appropriately neurotic and Bradley is curvaceous and vivacious. But both have unpleasant moments of being a little “stagey” – appearing more like actors than the characters they are supposed to be playing.
Vogel is a touch too saintly as the world-famous allergist. While everyone says how he never thinks of himself and always puts others first, no one climbs to those career heights without being fully aware of how others see them. It is that self-awareness that Vogel fails to project. Where he succeeds is in presenting Ira as a kind, intelligent, and loyal man. When Marjorie comes to her senses at the end you feel sure that she is making the right decision sticking up for her marriage and her family, even her mother.
Allocca does a nice job with what has become a tired old stereotype of a character. Was it ever funny to hear older people use four-letter words? Allocca handles the scatology naturally, without undue fanfare, and gives Frieda a firm core of intelligence and strongly-held opinions based on life experience.
The other character in this play is Mohammed (Zach Lombardo), the young Iraqi doorman, who obviously cares for and is cared for by the Taubs. It is difficult to explain the relationships that develop between residents and paid employees to someone who has not experienced the way large upper-class Manhattan apartment buildings operate. Yes, there are unpleasant elements of classism and racism involved, but by and large a sense of mutual respect and community responsibility obtains. Busch has depicted this beautifully, and the friendship between the Taubs and Mohammed is genuine and endearing. Lombardo assists this representation by playing his role gently and honestly.
I suspect Marotta and his cast have done the best they can with an uneven and ultimately unsatisfying play. In the first act we are asked to question whether Lee really exists or is merely a figment of Marjorie’s imagination. I was actually kind of disappointed when she turned out to be real. In the second act Busch starts referring to Lee as a Golem, a well-known figure from ancient Jewish folklore (all the characters in this play, except Mohammed, are Jewish) who is created out of inanimate materials, animated, and then, gaining strength, wrecks more and more havoc in its creator’s life, often ultimately destroying its creator. Had that term been introduced in the first act, I could have bought into that mythology. Marjorie needed a Lee in her life, so she created one, and once it had helped her regain her strength and sanity, she was able to overpower it before it could overpower her. But Lee’s identity is left a perpetual mystery. Once she is established as corporeal rather than imaginary, who she is and what she wants is never made clear. She does indeed attempt to wreck havoc – luring Marjorie and Ira into an not quite unwilling ménage a trios and bilking Frieda out of $5,000 – she doesn’t succeed, nor does she seem to really gain anything from her efforts. When she walked out the door, I was no more convinced she was really Marjorie’s childhood friend Lillian Greenblat than I had been when she walked in.
As usual, Abe Phelps has designed and built a spiffy set, and Marotta has decorated it to look both impossibly chic and inviting at the same time. Jonathan Knipscher has dressed both Evans and Bradley in wonderfully flattering high-end clothing, the kind that actually makes ladies “of a certain age” look and feel glamorous.
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife runs through July 8 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007