The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife by Charles Busch. Directed by Tony Simotes.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Not a stranger to the adult education program at Hunter College."
So, what happens when you don’t fast on Yom Kippur, you want to know? You either get the Kevorkian treatment or, just maybe, you get to be a star in your own little melodrama. In the case of Marjorie Taub you get what you get which is something in between the two options above with, okay, something else thrown in: your life is a farce with only two doors in it. Oy!
Set in an upper west side New York City apartment, this production of Charles Busch’s play, "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife," on stage for the summer at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts is definitely caught in that odd place where Dr. Kevorkian, melodrama and farce all meet, shake hands and try to have a baby. It is an odd relationship that grows stranger still as the two hours and twenty minutes move by with bursts of lofty laughter, blasts of human hubris, and busts of bleary beauties.
The story here concerns the mental state of Marjorie who is recovering from a strange occurrence that has left her helpless in her own estimation. Her voyeuristic intellectualism, the place where she retreats in safety, is no longer a safe haven for her. Her recently retired doctor husband cannot console her over the loss of her analyst whose recent death may have set Marjorie off. Marjorie’s mother, who lives and dies down the hall when she’s not dying accusatively in Marjorie’s apartment, is a natural-born tormentor. Their condominium’s doorman, Mohammed, is the wise, know-it-all, do-it-all friend who seems to be invited into the Taub’s home for any and all occasions. And then there’s Lee.
Lee. If ever a woman was created to be the catalyst in other people’s lives, it is Lee. Lee is the hard-core centre of all their lives, at least for a few weeks in September. And, curiously, it is September that matters here. As in the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson pop-hit "September Song" Lee and Marjorie are caught in that point in time when their lives are able to turn one way or another, but never both. It is September in their lives with November on the horizon. It is a time when choices must be made for there is no turning back, no starting over, only choices that will affect the rest of their lives and how that will play out.
This is a comedy. Director Tony Simotes knows that this is a comedy. He has directed it for comedy. Simotes took over the show for director Jonathan Croy who has had a lot of success with farcical writing over the years. Croy’s take on the show might have led it, and us, in very different directions but that is sadly not our concern. That lies with Simotes’ choices for this show. He has opted for the physical comedy of Lucy-Ethel sitcoms. This is unfettered yet restrained television style comedy. You let the lines get their laughs; you let the physical extremes get their laughs; and never the twain shall meet.
Fortunately he has Annette Miller in the title role, as Marjorie. It seems there is nothing this woman cannot do. She can be beautiful or she can be harridan. She can frighten us to titters or provide us belly laughs that leave us shaking with the horror of our own reactions. Her take on Marjorie is over-the-top and elegant, brittle and brutal, a gymnast’s exercise machine on overdrive. She invests so much power into this character that Marjorie assumes mythic proportions that no one else can come close to. Marjorie needs connections and Miller does so much with her that all possibilities along those lines are crushed. Marjorie takes center stage in Miller’s hands and she never leaves that spot even when she’s not on stage; at those times you sit and wonder, "what would Marjorie say if she was here?"
The show is truly hers, but maybe that is too much for the show to handle. She is the title role. She is what the story is concerned with, deep in its haunted heart. But this is not a one-woman show. There is an ensemble on stage, excellent actors all, and they also need to shine through the material. They have a hard time with Miller in that center ring of this three-ring circus of a play.
Joan Coombs plays Frieda, Marjorie’s mother. If any actor on this stage can pull focus away from Miller’s Marjorie it is this one. She has the strength of ten men in her role. She is the quintessential Jewish mother who can take the dramatic statement to the melodramatic depths and bring it home again with a knife already stuck in her own heart that is there just to match the one she left in your heart. Coombs rendition of this Yiddish theater part, half Molly Picon, half Estelle Getty, is as predictably hateful as possible, but without that quality pushing the humor she would not stand a chance to be seen and heard at all.
Especially with Jan Neuberger playing Lee Green. The former Lillian Greenblatt, Lee is probably the most pretentious character ever created by this author. She has been everywhere, has done everything, knows everyone, and can cure anything. She is vivacious, and she turns the play into an opera by Richard Strauss. Once she is a proven reality, the play has three women of volume to sing trios in which each has a line that never steps over into another character’s particular melody. For a good portion of the second act Neuberger gets to manipulate everyone else as Lee grabs the spotlight and runs all around the room with it. The diminutive actress, posing as the diminutive vamp, is a hard act to follow and, it feels as though the author found this character so compelling that he forgot to find a really fine ending for his play once she has left the building. If you like seduction scenes and thought that you’d seen the best of them, just wait until you see Neuberger’s Lee in full action.
One of the objects of her "fatale" is Ira Taub played, with a masterful understatement in this non-stop female brawl of a play, by Malcolm Ingram. Ingram has charm and good looks and a clean-lined body and he knows how to step aside when the others begin their game of dominance and distraction. Ira is written to be the man who cares when he can and Ingram expands on that by making him the man who seems to care when he can’t. He gets his own distinct laughs and he never makes Ira into the "sympathy guy"; instead he makes him into the "empathy guy"; you feel with him and not for him. It’s a terrific performance that no one will remember and that makes it pitch-perfect.
Jules Findlay is fine as Mohammed, particularly in those moments when he need to appear embarrassed. He does that beautifully and sincerely and it is to his credit as an actor that he knows better than to try and pull attention away from the other four folks on stage.
Esther Van Eek’s costumes feel just perfect and Patrick Brennan’s adapted stage set works well for the play. Stephen Ball does just fine with his lighting, the sometimes bright, spare glow on the stage almost as brittle as the dialogue.
In the end the struggle for dominance becomes a brutal battle between the playwright and the director. Neither of them loses here, but neither of them wins either. This is an experience in which three women hold the reins and their horses are champing at their bits. As this show plays in repertory the women can rest up between races, but it doesn’t really matter who wins the center stage battle here. That is the most honest tale of the Allergist’s wife.
Annette Miller; photo: Kevin Sprague
Malcolm Ingram; photo: Kevin Sprague
Jules Findlay and Jan Neuberger; photoL Kevin Sprague
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays in repertory through September 1 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353.