There is not the least doubt that Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, is funny. In the capable hands of director Roseann Ruggiero and the Chester Theatre Group, running through Sept. 28 at the Black River Playhouse, the comedy provoked virtually non-stop laughter Saturday night, the kind of loud and prolonged laughter that one doesn’t hear very often.
What makes this hilarity head-scratching is that the wife in the title, Marjorie Taub, is deeply depressed. An upper-middle-class woman, living in an elegant Riverside Drive apartment, a quick bus ride to the high culture she claims to crave, Marjorie is nonetheless spending her time lying on the couch proclaiming the emptiness of her life. She has recently had an “accident” at a Disney store, where she shattered a number of pricey ceramic figurines, which certainly smacks of serious mental illness.
So why are we laughing? Consider a few more facts. Marjorie has two daughters who live as far away from her, and each other, as they can manage. Her husband, Ira, retired from practice, runs a clinic for homeless people with runny noses, is lionized on WBAI (New York’s progressive noncommercial radio station) and is absorbed by adoring students.
To make Marjorie’s life complete, down the hall lives her mother, Frieda, a geriatric sprite with a knack for graphic descriptions of her digestive system, her choice for mealtime conversations. Admittedly, Frieda is a great source of laughter. And, oddly, we are not laughing at Frieda, but rather with her. Her antics are quite intentional, designed to keep Marjorie off balance.
So what is missing in Marjorie’s life (assuming that neither Schopenhauer nor Kierkegaard is about to surface)? She needs a friend. Enter Lee Green, née Lillian Greenblatt. At the moment she is most needed, she appears at Marjorie’s door, apparently by coincidence, and turns out to be a long-lost childhood pal.
The mayhem Lee causes in the Taub household is varied and colorful. It ranges from culinary to political, existential to sexual. Who and what Lee is, why she is there and, finally, how the Taubs are going to deal with her is the subject of the unfolding of the story. (Left: Lauri MacMillan and Maryann Galife)
Why is this so funny? And it is funny, though at moments it hovers at the edges of bad taste and even strays over the line.
Well, one reason is that all the characters are stereotypes. We are used to this from television sitcoms. Even some of our most successful playwrights (Neil Simon?) have created stereotypical characters, but Busch’s people are way over the top.
We were intrigued to learn that Busch is well-known as a female impersonator who has played some of his own characters in drag. The women in this play, particularly Marjorie but also the toilet-obsessed Frieda and the name-dropping, predatory Lee could all be female impersonators. They are too much to be real.
This could explain why the character of Ira and the other male character, an Iraqi doorman-cum-handiman, are lower key and more realistic.
Ruggiero is superb when it comes to getting super-energetic performances from her actors. Lauri MacMillan is a whirlwind as Marjorie, beautifully turned out in flowing caftans and chic outfits. Marjorie may question her own sanity, but nobody can question her taste—or her credit cards. Maryann Galife Post is absolutely reptilian as Lee. Sharon Moran (top photo) is a natural scene-stealer and she projects physical vulnerability while breaking us up with lines that make us both laugh and cringe. And Rahul Sachdeva, a newcomer to CTG, is completely convincing as Mohammed, the doorman. (Above L-R: Sharon Moran, Maryann Galife Post and Lauri MacMillan)
We have to say, though, that the performance of the night was given by Steven Nitka, a CTG veteran, who is totally believable and also very funny as the low-key (but totally self-satisfied) Ira Taub. Because his performance is so subtle, he makes us believe that the crazy women around him are real. Just a brilliant job!
Negatives? Some might see them as political. Jokes involving the Holocaust are not funny and add nothing to what is otherwise hilarious. It was like enjoying a delicious confection and suddenly biting into something inappropriately bitter. That misstep was clearly by Charles Busch. And somehow, the ending was unsatisfying, the final scene peculiarly unrelated to anything that went before. We think he didn’t know when to stop.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife runs through September 28. For information and tickets, call 908.879.7304 or visit www.chestertheatregroup.org online.
Photos by Tom Glasscock.