The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife
Reviewed by Larry Murray, Berkshire on Stage
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is the second in a trio of plays that will run in repertory on the stage of the Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. Like the first offering, the docu-drama Cassandra Speaks, it is an absorbing evening of theatre, full of laughs and some pretty oddball characters. Next week it will be joined by Parasite Drag, a darkly humorous look at siblings and secrets.
The art and craft of American theatre has many specialties, one of them being the Jewish tradition, the other the special brand of humor that gay artists bring to their works. Charles Busch, who wrote The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is not only a gay writer, but most of his plays were vehicles in which he played the leading lady – in drag.
Busch’s play takes on Upper West Side New York culture but at Shakespeare & Company it was missing its subtle, campy edge. Part of that is due the fact that this was the first play that he wrote for the “straight” theatre. Even so, his women are descended from the great ladies of the silver screen, and larger than life, so a residue of campy humor and physical comedy always remained. Busch tried to straighten me out on this point:
“I’m not sure what campy means, but I guess if my plays have elements of old movies and old fashioned plays, and I’m this bigger-than-life star lady, that’s certainly campy. I guess what I rebelled against was the notion that campy means something is so tacky or bad that it’s good, and that I just didn’t relate to.” – Charles Busch
The play, his first in which he did not star, and the first created for a mainstream audience, was written for actress Linda Lavin, who played opposite Michele Lee and Tony Roberts.
In the Berkshires you simply do not run into characters like the very uptown Marjorie, Annette Miller’s role as leading lady in Allergist’s Wife. Not even at Guido’s on a mid-summer day. Those larger-than-life culturally addicted Manhattan personalities must edit themselves down when they hit the Massachusetts border. In Manhattan, sometimes you have to be outrageous to get people to notice you; in the Berkshires the same behavior gets people to distance themselves from you.
That is why Tony Simotes direction and the actor’s readings in this production found the sweet spot between New York camp and Berkshire safe. It’s a safer midtown production we encounter in Lenox. Still very funny, just not as funny. Let me try to explain a little further.
The words and stage direction of the Busch script were delivered exactly as written, with the fast pacing and roller coaster elements that make this play such fun. Some call it Neil Simon lite, but Simon’s characters are more average and ordinary. With Busch you enter the world of privilege.
Marjorie Taub (Annette Miller), a middle-aged Upper West Side Doctor’s wife, is devoted to mornings at the Whitney, afternoons at MOMA and evenings at BAM. Plunged into a mid-life crisis of Medea-like proportions – what was she doing in the Disney store dropping porcelain reproductions of Goofy onto the floor – she’s shaken out of her lethargy by the reappearance of a fascinating and somewhat mysterious childhood friend Lee, splashily played by Jan Neuberger.
Her husband Ira (Malcolm Ingram) quietly endures Marjorie’s kvetching and kvelling without a kerfuffle, never moving much beyond patient endurance, with the slightest touch of ennui. Like Marjorie, he has his own world of diversions that he escapes to as well. One is left to deduce that the marriage survives because they each escape into their own intellectual worlds when they are together.
Then there is Frieda, Marjorie’s mother, played by Joan Coombs, full of criticism, censure and negativity about her daughter, and adoring of her son-in-law the doctor. It’s a Jewish cliche and the mother wears it well. Frieda’s only world is that of her closest family, and her bowl movements. Coombs let loose some of the best one-liners of the evening, especially timed for when her daughter was eating. This brought Marjorie’s frustrations to the surface, and when mother and daughter lock horns, the laughs came fast and furious,more than any show in recent memory.
Suddenly barging into Marjorie’s world comes childhood friend Lee (Jan Neuberger) who takes the shallow, self-flagellating world of mother and daughter to a whole different place. It seems that Lee has been everywhere, done everything and knows everyone who ever appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, from Henry Kissinger to Julia Child. Dropping names adored by the mainstream, she soon has Marjorie in her thrall, and not long after, Dr. Taub and her mother, too.
As Lee, Neuberger soon has everyone eating out of her hand since she is a great cook too. Much like SHeridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner, she has soon embedded herself into the household as a permanent guest, drawing Marjorie out of her dark mood and challenging her marriage as a threesome is proposed. On stage Neuberger is such a compelling, upbeat character that there were times she threatened to suck all the oxygen out of the air, leaving the other actors breathless.
Outrageous situations? They’re here. Wall to wall laughs? Covered. Perfection achieved? Not quite.
The overall production doesn’t quite cohere yet, , most likely because of limited rehearsal time. Comedy is a choreographic art, and so Allergist’s Wife will benefit from time to settle in, and also needs a little more “punch” in the delivery of some of the lines. Some lines were indecipherable since they were recited, not projected. A blackout line was simply lost because it was mumbled.
If there is one flaw in this production, it is that this play requires not only great actors which it had in abundance, but actors who are natural comics. The missing element here seemed to be a sense of timing and emphasis. One only has to watch the one legal excerpt from the Broadway production on You Tube to see how those elements are everything. And a visit to any Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans show in Boston or Provincetown would inform Shakespeare & Company about the subtle elements missing in their productions of shows with an “out” edge. Of course, they may not be so unfamiliar at all, but in the Berkshires felt to be too over the top.
Allergist’s Wife represents the adventurous spirit of Shakespeare & Company and Tony Simote’s willingness to plunge deeper into the gay theatrical canon at Shakespeare & Company. This is good for everyone since there is much to be mined here.
I hope all this talk of Jewish and gay elements is not off-putting to theatre-goers, since theatre goes where you might not go in normal life. Here’s a chance to enjoy an absolutely charming comedy, and trust me, it is safe to take your summer visitors to see as well. In New York it went mainstream and ran for 777 performances at the Ethel Barrymore theatre. Like that production, this is a wonderful evening filled with quirky characters going new places, all of which is revealed in a cinematic series of 7-8 blackouts. You don’t have to head back to the big city to see this sort of sophisticated and specialized theatre. It’s right here in our own backyard. Go. Enjoy. And to the whole company, mazel tov!
In 2001, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife was nominated for a Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award as Best Play and won Charles Busch the John Gassner Award for Outstanding Playwriting.
Shakespeare & Company presents The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife by Charles Busch, directed by Tony Simotes,Set Designer – Patrick Brennan, Costumes Designer – Esther Van Eek, Lighting Designer – Stephen Ball, Sound Designer – Michael Pfeiffer, Stage Manager – Sandy Cleary. Cast: Annette Miller – Marjorie, Jules Findley – Mohammed, Malcolm Ingram – Ira, Joan Coombs – Frieda, Jan Neuberger – Lee. June 12-September 1, 2012, Elayne P.Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA. About two hours twenty minutes with one intermission.