The Tale of The Allergistís Wife by Charles Busch. Directed by Michael Marotta.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Diana Bradley and Nancy Evans as Lee and Marjorie
"...desperately seeking Nirvana."
The only problem with the hit comedy by drag diva Charles Busch, The Tale of The Allergistís Wife, is that it isnít really very funny. Not by itself, at any rate. On Broadway it was a puff of hilarity as three major stars worked like maniacs to inject humor into the script by mugging, carrying things to extremes and generally turning drawing room sex kitch into its most farcical form. Linda Lavin, Tony Roberts and Michelle Lee are all wonderful actors and when it comes to "over the top" antics probably cannot be beaten. At The Theater Barn in New Lebanon, New York those three stars are not available to take us to the extremes that this play needs to be really successful. Alas.
Marjorie Taub has been in mourning for a while over the loss of her psychiatrist. Her recently retired Allergist husband, Ira, cannot provide consolation and neither can her nagging, walker-ridden mother Frieda. Marjorieís one ray of sunshine is her reading, something she shares with Mohammed, the doorman of her upper west side, Riverside Drive apartment building. Suddenly into her life comes an old high school chum, Lee, a ray of sunshine that initially brightens Marjorieís days then begins to fade her drapes as her intentions become more and more unorthodox in this conservative Jewish home. Taking the plunge leads to disastrous results for Marjorie whose domestic life unravels even further. But she does learn one thing, to quote Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, "thereís no place like home" and Mohammed is the East. Sounds like fun? Right.
Michael Marotta, who is generally a reliable director for light comedy, has come up with a company that cannot make all of this funny. Busch has written some outrageous lines that do get laughs, but more often than not they fall on seemingly deaf ears and lie there. That, unfortunately, is the fault of the casting of this play. There are two excellent performances, one quirky one and two that die aborning. Marotta has attempted to give the play a pace, but his cast canít keep up with him, I fear. They trip, doggedly, into their lines. They avoid the relationships the playwright has given them.
At the bottom end of the performance spectrum are the Taubs, Ira and Marjorie. Sky Vogel is Ira and he is so low key, so softly played that to not love him seems a crime. But his energy, or lack of it, his exasperation or rather lack of it, plays against the relationship he has with his wife. There are times he cannot be heard. There are times he does not react. There are even moments in the play when he disappears completely as his wife is being seduced right before his eyes by Lee. Ira is a man who must always be in the room, even when heís gone off to work. Without him and his reactions we donít have the comedy Busch intends. Vogel is pleasant, with a slight charm and a misplaced reality here. He loses us and he loses the play.
As his wife, the central and title character, Nancy Evans is a shrew whose personality holds us at armís length from the beginning to the end. She never allows us to see a different side of her difficult personality. We never know what holds Ira, what attracts Lee, what makes Frieda so punishing for her. Her Marjorie deserves little, so I will stop here and comment no further.
As Lee, Diana Bradley brings an energy to the piece which is definitely right for her role. She has the funniest way of walking Iíve ever seen and it, alone, is worth the price of a ticket, but without the comic foils for her to play off, even that wonderful walk and Mae West like-delivery of sultry lines and actions falls short of the desired effect. Itís too bad, really, for she could make this play into the laugh-riot everyone wants. Her entrance and recognition comes off not quite real, and her reentry, which should be a revelation, merely confirmed her presence. Even her exit, which should excite and enthrall, became a flat spot. Itís too bad, because she could be terrific if she only seemed to have an impact.
Zach Lombardo is a perfect Mohammed, from his manly presence on a ladder at the beginning of the play to his almost too willing victim of seduction at the conclusion. His playing has a ring of true reality to it, although it is clearly couched in the comedy of the writing. He does it all very well and deserves the rich applause he received at the performance I attended on Friday night.
At the top of the heap is Marie Allocca who cannot do more with Frieda than she does. She makes petulance and flatulence into funny things to do. She exaggerates without going too far and she gives the character everything it deserves and needs. She is the embodiment of "a relationship that never really ended," an accusation Lee throws at her and Marjorie. She serves for her daughter as "a grim reminder of her bleak future." Allocca makes this all very funny to watch and hear and most of the belly laughs in this production come through her performance and the way in which theothers react to her.
Abe Phelps has put up a perfectly west side New York set for this play. Garish in color, yet exactly right, it does itís best to send the players on their way to hilarity. Jonathan Knipscherís costumes are excellent, providing Marjorie and Lee with character-defining clothes.
The only real problem is the play itself. Its needs are rampant, mostly over-the-top playing, and its been denied what it requires. Poor, little play. It tried.
THE TALE OF THE ALLERGISTSííS WIFE runs through Sunday, July 8 at the fully air conditioned Theater Barn with performances on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 5 PM & 8:30 PM and Sunday matinees at 2 PM. Tickets are $20.00 for all evening performances, and $18.00 for the Sunday matinee. For information and reservations, which are suggested, please call (518) 794-8989. http://www.theaterbarn.com