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Olive and the Bitter Herbs

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Garrison, Dan Butler, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Richard Masur, and Julie Halston.
Photo by James Leynse.

No topic is off-limits for Charles Busch, and that's usually a good thing. One of the most diverse and entertaining playwrights (and performers) around, he's as skillful when penning camp movie spoofs as he is dissecting the lovable eccentricities of the Upper West Side. But just as the bizarro nuns of The Divine Sister would be out of place at tea with the psychotic Angela Arden of Die, Mommie, Die!, not all of Busch's brilliant ideas automatically fit together. Seldom is that proven more explicitly than it is with his unsteady new play Olive and the Bitter Herbs, which just opened at Primary Stages.

In many respects, it resembles one of Busch's biggest popular successes, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, centering on a female Jewish Manhattanite surrounded by wacky people and a sense of uncertainty that not everyone around her is telling her the whole truth. Here, the keystone woman is Olive Fisher (Marcia Jean Kurtz), a harsh-mouthed 70-something actress best known for doing commercials in the 1980s and '90s that featured the punch line "Gimme the sausage." Now, she's subsisting on what gigs she can get, often with the help of her manager-friend Wendy (Julie Halston), and trying to avoid exposing her nose to the next-door neighbors' obsession with cheese that can be smelled through the paper-thin apartment walls.

At least her life isn't all bad news. She recently guest starred on an episode of the popular TV series Manhattan Coroner, which she and Wendy both believe could be an award-winning turn. And she meets her combative co-op board president's father, Sylvan (Richard Masur), whom she discovers is distinguished, charming, handsome, and available (when he's not at his retirement home in Argentina, at any rate). Even when the neighbors, Trey and Robert (Dan Butler and David Garrison), barge in on her, with one being a semi-outspoken Republican and both being annoying to her, Olive's spirits can't deflate entirely.

As long as Busch sticks to detailing the idiosyncrasies of these five people, he's on concrete comic footing. The bickering among them, particularly around the table during a hectic Seder, is of the delicious, paper-cutting variety at which Busch excels. Director Mark Brokaw's sense of pacing is impeccable, and the contrasting personalities—from Kurtz's pitch-perfect bark to Halston's placating daffiness to Butler and Garrison's laser-targeted acerbic attacks—makes them a marvelous menagerie you delight in watching (mostly) tear each other apart.

But a significant portion of Olive and the Bitter Herbs is not about this at all. Competing for time is a mystery surrounding two mirrors in Olive's apartment (which has been designed with ramshackle elegance by Anna Louizos). They're placed so that looking into one gives an unobstructed view of the other, on and on into infinity¬óbut sometimes something else appears: a man with a long neck, a cowlick, and protruding ears, who mesmerizes everyone who glimpses him.

This is not entirely unrelated to the themes of the main story, as Olive is struggling to determine what her identity is and should be as she progresses through the final stages of her life. But it introduces a lot of dialogue and concerns that encourage more bloat than they do hilarity or introspection. Large stretches involve the characters staring into the glass or trying to work out the constantly expanding puzzle of the mystery man's identity; and while they're doing this, they're far less involved with each other—and thus far less involving. The entire climax is dedicated to resolving this issue, and consequently musing on the tangled interconnectedness of existence, something that's not a core concept of the play up to that point.

The actors have more trouble dealing with this as well. Masur is actually more relaxed doing this than he is at the rapid-fire comedy (though Sylvan is typically the straight man in most exchanges), and makes the smoothest transition between styles. But Kurtz doesn't melt your heart or your spirit when she puts aside her brusqueness, Halston seems to be mocking genuine feeling rather than experiencing it, and Butler and Garrison never really "come down" far enough to convince you that their characters truly belong in this new world.

One can easily understand why it's one that Busch wanted to explore, however, and it's hard to imagine many playwrights having more fun with the idea than he. Given how much he loves deploying Gordian plots in his wackier comedies, one subsuming all of modern civilization—or maybe just New York City—within a web of interlocking confusions and coincidences, all under the umbrella of Busch's razor-edged wit, is an intoxicating notion. Then again, even a more "traditional" play skewering the self-styled New York elite and its tendency to look out for itself at the expense of all others would likely be a delight coming from Busch. The problem with Olive and the Bitter Herbs isn't that it's neither of those things, but that it aspires to be both without bothering to make their conflicting spirits jibe.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs
Through September 3
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins including intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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