The Tale of the Allergist's Wife
Someone is enjoying The Tale of the Allergist's Wife at the Ahmanson. I know this because I heard laughter at Charles Busch's comedy, but I had no idea where it was coming from. The audience members in my immediate vicinity were disappointedly silent.
It's not Busch's fault. His play, about a dissatisfied New York Jewish housewife, is a serviceable script, with an acceptable amount of punchlines. But any actual comic potential is never realized, defeated by an over-the-top performance by its lead. Valerie Harper plays Marjorie, the well-educated, well-off, well-respected doctor's wife, who has a mini-breakdown because she has never actually accomplished anything herself. Marjorie is, by nature, overdramatic as she bemoans the fact she has never had an original thought. But Harper overacts the overactress, and the result is painfully unfunny. Far from suiting the action to the word, Harper physically acts out many of the lines she's saying, although no real person actually would. An article reprinted in the program quotes director Lynne Meadow as saying, "Linda [Lavin, the original Marjorie] knew she had to go to the high wire for this one, and we agreed we would approach the material as if it were 'Hedda Gabler,' without worrying about being funny." Apparently the approach was changed for Harper, who goes for the cheap laughs of a middle-aged woman wildly waving her arms and raising her voice, rather than the harder-earned laughs that come from actually playing Marjorie.
Tony Roberts, Valerie Harper, and Michelle Lee
There's better work from Harper's companions in this play, but they can't save it. Michele Lee plays Lee, an old friend of Marjorie's who enters her life like a whirlwind. Lee (the character) has traveled the world; she works for a charitable organization and has really made a difference - things Marjorie desperately wishes she had done. Lee (the actress) plays her character to the jealousy-inducing hilt, casually dropping names as she gives Marjorie a vicarious taste of the life she wants. Tony Roberts hits the single comic note in Ira, Marjorie's perfect husband, who is giving and understanding to a fault. Roberts has more to work with in the second act when Lee offers his character an opportunity to be something less than an ideal husband.
The only consistently funny character in the show is Marjorie's mother Frieda, who is a comic ethnic mother in the tradition of Estelle Getty's character on The Golden Girls. Frieda is the sort of woman too old to care whether the topics of conversation of importance to her (which generally have something to do with the quality and frequency of her bowel movements) are inappropriate. It's pretty standard stuff, but Shirl Bernheim lands every zinger, and lightens up each scene in which she appears.
It's a shame that these are the only true laughs in the show. Busch's script draws some interesting characters, puts them in an unusual situation, and gives them some witty stuff to say. But an over-the-top performance by the leading actress dooms the play to the few laughs its supporting characters can eke out.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Manhattan Theatre Club, Lynne Meadow, Artistic Director; Barry Grove, Executive Producer; Carole Shorenstein Hays, Daryl Roth, Stuart Thompson and Douglas S. Cramer present The Tale of the Allergist's Wife by Charles Busch. Set Design Santo Loquasto; Costume Design Ann Roth; Lighting Design Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design Bruce Ellman and Brian Ronan. Production Stage Manager Robert Witherow; Production Management O'Donovan & Bradford; Casting Nancy Piccione and David Caparelliotis; Tour Press & Marketing TMG-The Marketing Group; General Management Stuart Thompson Productions/James Triner. Directed by Lynne Meadow.
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through August 11, 2002. For tickets and information, click www.taperahmanson.com.