When it closed last season after a two year run on Broadway, Charles Busch’s wonderful tall tale The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife clearly became a prime choice for production at the Paper Mill. After all, smash hit comedies of this proportion have become quite rare these days. However, one could only hope that this rich and complex comedy would retain its distinction in a new production. I am happy to report that Tale remains a delight which will bring great pleasure to Paper Mill audiences throughout its run.
Middle aged cultural vulture Marjorie Taub is a suicidal basket case. She is tortured by feelings of inadequacy, the inattentiveness of her allergist husband Ira, the hurtful barbs of her mother Frieda, the absence and indifference of her adult daughters and the death of her psychiatrist. Mysteriously, her childhood friend Lee Green (nee Lillian Greenblatt) appears at her upper Central Park West apartment full of a phantasmagoria of stories about an impossibly fabulous life involving intimacies with outstanding writers and intellectuals, and an insider’s presence at earth shaking world events. Lee’s hallucinatory presence shakes Marjorie out of her lethargy and brings about a reordering of her relationship with her husband.
Shirl Bernheim (Frieda) and Robin Strasser (Marjorie Taub)
When I first encountered Tale at the Manhattan Theatre Club prior to its transfer to Broadway, it appeared to me to be the kind of light, in this case ethnic (Jewish), comedy which was once a staple on Broadway. I was disappointed that the Ridiculous Theatrical Company queen Charles Busch had written such a conventional comedy. Seeing it a couple of years later on Broadway with a replacement cast, I realized that Busch had written a tall tale, a surrealist fantasy in the guise of a conventional Broadway comedy. Much richer stuff than I had at first thought.
Reading that Busch’s “best friend” and theatre associate Carl Andress would be directing the Paper Mill production of Tale, I anticipated a production which would play down the conventional veneer and emphasize its elements of fantasy. However, Andress has given full rein to the play’s conventional Broadway ethnic comedy side of the play, and, in the process, made it funnier than ever.
Robin Strasser is as good as anyone could wish in the role of Marjorie. She manages to be funny in her craziness without any obvious comic schtick. She delivers Marjorie’s shrill diatribes full blast with manic pace, precision and clarity. One can only hope that she can sustain the effort for eight performances a week. Her comic timing when trading barbs (mostly with Frieda) is excellent. Never still or at ease, she conveys Marjorie’s shifts in mood without ever losing track of the underlying lack of self esteem which motivates everything that she does.
Lenny Wolpe is also outstanding. He embodies the Ira Taubs of both real life and the stage. I refer to New York ethnic types who are middle brow but smart; self absorbed, but well meaning and kind; and just plain schlumpy. This is a type out of the stylistic range of the original Ira (Tony Roberts).
The fairy tale nature of Lee Green’s presence is crystal clear in its clear contrast to the unashamedly old fashioned comic staging which surrounds it. Meg Foster’s stylized performance conveys this well. She is engaging and, when appropriate, off putting. However, she is not as devastatingly glamorous a presence as Michelle Lee was when she created the role of Lee. In fact, when Marjorie gets herself straightened out, it appeared from my view that she was more glamorous than Lee. The culprit here may be in the costume design.
As Frieda, original cast member Shirl Bernheim matches Strasser shot for shot in the precision timing of her barbs. There is no question regarding the freshness of her performance. We just believe that she is Frieda 24/7, both on stage and off. So she draws the biggest hand at the curtain call without even having to act. Or so it seems.
Rounding out the cast, Ariel Shafir is appealing as Mohammed, the intellectual Bangladeshi doorman.
Funny is certainly a good thing, but most striking to me in seeing Tale anew is the weightiness of Busch’s work. Embedded in some of the funniest lines of the play are psychological, social and political observations relating to contemporary American Jews. Although there are jibes at ethnocentrism, Busch aims his strongest barbs at self hating assimilationists who only perceive and agonize over threats to other groups.
Frieda is hostile to Jesse Jackson for comments that Frieda regards as anti-Semitic. Lee tells her that if she feels threatened by “disempowered people of color,” she should help to empower them by giving to the United Negro College Fund. Frieda responds by saying, “I give money to Israel.”
Tale is more politically pointed and serious issues are more central to the play than I had remembered. This is heady and serious stuff. There are even prescient inklings of September 11.
Those seeking lightweight fun need have no fear; all of this is presented with such riotous good humor that, if you prefer, you can just skim along the surface of Busch’s wit and ignore the more charged stuff.
Much is being made of the new set by the Paper Mill’s outstanding resident set designer Michael Anania. It features a large window with a view of Central Park and a stylized rendition of a New York skyline. It attempts to amplify the combination of naturalism and abstraction which is in Busch’s play. While the set for the Taub apartment is appropriate and most playable and the outdoor images are attractive, the set appears lightweight and portable, and seems to have required some distracting support rods protruding at the top. Thus it distracts from focusing in on the actors.
Aside from the above noted glitch, the costumes by Miguel Angel Huidor neatly define the characters. Specifically, Huidor should do away with the unflattering toreador pants which Meg Foster wears in the second act.
If you haven’t seen The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, I urge you to seize this opportunity to see Paper Mill’s exceptionally funny production of a destined to be classic. If you have seen it previously, be advised that this is a rich, complex play which rewards multiple visits.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife continues through February 8, 2004 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online www.papermill.org.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife by Charles Busch; directed by Carl Andress. Cast: Robin Strasser (Marjorie Taub); Lenny Wolpe (Ira Taub); Meg Foster (Lee Green); Shirl Bernheim (Frieda); Ariel Shafir (Mohammed)