Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

Jana Robbins and Valerie Harper
Photo: Chris Bennion
The scene changes executed to the music of John Williams ("The Devil's Dance" from The Witches of Eastwick) and the flickering of a maniacal chandelier are the best reason to see The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. And Roz Chast's cartoon logo of a woman in a shopping bag decorated with stickers declaring her allegiance to Spinoza, Herman Hesse and Mexican Folkloric Dancing - if only Charles Busch's play was as much fun. Valerie Harper, who participated in an early reading at Manhattan Theatre Club and eventually took over for Linda Lavin on Broadway, now bravely leads the charge of the national tour. They've settled in for the holidays at Boston's Wilbur theatre under the joint auspices of The Huntington Theatre Company and Broadway in Boston/Clear Channel Entertainment.

Harper puts her own stamp on Marjorie Taub, the lady in the afore mentioned shopping bag, at least to the extent that her performance evokes shades of Rhoda, the TV character she's most closely associated with, rather than her much acclaimed predecessor in the role.

Mike Burstyn as the good Dr. Taub and Jana Robbins as the interloper Lee, on the other hand, are pleasant but not revelatory knock-offs of Tony Roberts and Michele Lee, the originators of their respective roles. The other two characters are merely irritating. Marjorie's mother (Sondra James) is straight out of Golden Girls with the addition of some foul language and the requisite Yiddish. The Iranian doorman (Anil Kumar through December 15th) is a perplexing appendage to the proceedings seemingly there to provide the less than satisfying button at the end of the play.

Santo Loquasto's set is both decorative and serviceable, albeit with a floor plan more suggestive of a loft than a Riverside Drive coop. The best of Ann Roth's costumes is Majorie's first getup. The voluminous velour robe accessorized with a big sweater, slipper socks and a freight wig tells us all we need to know about her condition. She's ripe for rescue and salvation by her long lost friend Lee after languishing for days over the untimely passing of her psychiatrist and an unfortunate encounter with expensive porcelain in the Disney store.

The costumes, along with everything else, grow increasingly less delightful as the play progresses. When Lee's plan to rescue the Taubs from their respective mid-life crises takes a surprising turn in the second act, Lynne Meadow's direction of this cast is not sure-handed enough. Perhaps what was difficult to buy here was an easier sell as originally executed. The much touted strengths of the original trio of cast members appears to offer the best explanation for the long year run of Allergist's Wife on Broadway despite the script's shortcomings.

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is at The Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont Street, Boston now through January 12, 2003. Performances are Tuesday - Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm and Sunday at 2pm & 7:30pm. Additional matinees are on Thursday, December 16th and Wednesday, January 8th at 2pm. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster at 617-931-2787 and at the Wilbur Theatre's Box Office. To exchange Huntington Theatre Company subscriber tickets call the Huntington Box Office at 617 266-0800.

Uncle Vanya

Arliss Howard as Dr. Astrov and Linda Powell as Yelena
Photo: Richard Feldman
The inaugural production of the American Repertory Theatre's first season under Artistic Director Robert Woodruff is Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, adapted and directed by János Szász from a translation by Paul Schmidt. As is the norm at the A.R.T., this is a sometimes satisfying, but often disturbing production.

As demonstrated previously with Mother Courage and her Children and Marat/Sade, one of Szász's trademarks is a highly visual and metaphorical sense of place. The metaphor of the bar dominating Riccardo Hernandez's stark set and its patrons wandering in and out is difficult to grasp. Inspired by the Andrew Tarkovsky film The Stalker, it does nothing to evoke "Scenes from Country Life," the subtitle of the published version of Checkhov's slice of Russian rural life at the turn of the last century.

The most satisfying aspect of his treatment is Szász's decision to bring the characters of Vanya (Thomas Derrah) and the doctor (Arliss Howard) to the forefront. Vanya manages the rural estate owned by his niece Sonya (Phoebe Jonas) but worked for the benefit of her usually absent father (Will LeBow.) Both look forward to monthly visits from Astrov, the local doctor. Vanya is stimulated by Astrov's concerns with the greater community and its environment; Sonya is in love with him.

The two life-long friends share the worst of the malaise infecting the entire household upon the arrival of Sonya's father, now retired from his revered position as a teacher and writer, and his new, much younger wife Yelena (Linda Powell). Usual routines are disrupted as everyone scrambles to please the demanding outsiders. Even the worldly doctor is not immune. His monthly visits quickly escalate into daily ones, instigated by the middle-of-the-night complaints of the ailing professor, but protracted to satisfy his attraction to Yelena.

Derrah and Howard succeed admirably with turning the particulars of their characters' dilemmas into the universal crankiness and confusion of middle-aged angst. In contrast, Jonas and Powell, don't have the same pull, especially in their moments together when Sonya confesses her love for the doctor and Yelena offers to intervene on her behalf. Powell is the physical embodiment of the bored femme fatale, but neither she nor Jonas has the vocal prowess to do justice to the language.

And, as he did with Marat/Sade, Szász has again tinkered with the ending of the play, dragging it out interminably and adding business for Vanya that deviates dramatically from Checkhov's original intentions.

Uncle Vanya, now through December 28th at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. For performance dates and times please visit: Box Office Phone and A.R.T. InfoLine: (617) 547-8300.

Related events:

The Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky (the inspiration for the set for Uncle Vanya) will be shown at the Harvard Film Archive, Carpenter Center, 24 Quincy Street, Harvard Square. Tickets are $5 for A.R.T. patrons ($2 off the regular price.)

PREPLAY: DISCUSSIONS ONE HOUR BEFORE CURTAIN (open to all A.R.T. ticket holders) on Wednesday, December 18 at 6:30 pm; Thursday, December 19 at 6:30 pm and Sunday, December 15 at 6:30 pm.

PLAYBACK: DISCUSSION POST-SHOW (open to all A.R.T. ticket holders) on Saturdays, December 7, 14, 21 at 1 p.m.

See the current theatre schedule for the Boston area.

-- Suzanne Bixby

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