There are only three reasons to see The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. They are, in no particular order, Linda Lavin, Michele Lee, and Tony Roberts.
Charles Busch has written a play about a middle aged, wannabe intellectual, upper West side matron named Marjorie (Linda Lavin) whose mid life crisis is defined by her generation's pantheon of avant guard philosophical superstars, with an emphasis on oriental mysticism, spiritual alienation, and Sidhartha. Marjorie's life is further complicated by an ineffectual but loving husband named Ira (Tony Roberts) and the sudden reappearance of a childhood friend named Lee (Michele Lee), who seems to have had the life Marjorie has only dreamed of. And don't forget Marjorie's mother, Frieda (Shirl Bernheim), a shrew for whom life apparently holds no greater joy than a readily available rectal suppository.
Mr. Busch has not used these elements to any great effect, abandoning what plot there is late in the first act under the mistaken assumption that merely throwing complication on top of complication produces an enjoyable, or at least understandable, play. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife looks to be nothing more than one of Mr. Busch's earlier, campier short plays - Vampire Lesbians of Sodom comes to mind - stretched out to two hours and conservatively dressed for an elderly, less hip Broadway audience.
The evening would be unendurable were it not for the presence of Lavin, Lee, and Roberts. That Linda Lavin is one of our greatest comic actresses is a given. Here she shows her mettle, pulling out all the stops and using every reliable trick and technique in the proverbial theatrical trunk in a tour de force performance resplendent with her trademark phrasing, expressions and double takes. Never has an actress worked so hard to earn her laughs, and earn them she does. Michele Lee matches her laugh for laugh, turning a one note role into a believable, and eventually frightening, fully developed character. Tony Roberts reliably walks the thin line between under- and over-playing, managing somehow to set and sustain the mood of heightened reality this production demands.
Santo Loquasto's lavish set, Christopher Akerlind's subtle lighting, and Ann Roth's sly costumes are appropriate without demanding too much attention. Lynne Meadow's direction is workmanlike and serviceable.
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife by Charles Busch. Directed by Lynne Meadow. Cast: Linda Lavin, Tony Roberts, Michele Lee, with Shirl Bernheim, Anil Kumar. Set design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Bruce Ellman and Brian Ronan.
Theatre: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.
Audience: May be inappropriate for children 12 and under. Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: $70, $50, and $35 (Wednesday matinee $65, $50 and $30)
Tickets online: TeleCharge
Tickets by phone: TeleCharge at (212) 239-6200, or outside the New York metro area (800) 545-2559, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 6 PM.
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Tickets by Snail mail: The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998.