Things haven’t been going all that well recently for New York matron Marjorie Taub. The death of her beloved therapist has left her with a feeling she describes as “Perdu. Utter damnation. The loss of my soul.” Though the Disney Store has fortunately decided not to press charges for the six porcelain figures she just happened to drop following her shrink’s memorial service, Marjorie can’t seem to get off the living room sofa and attend her usual mix of lectures, gallery exhibits, and opera symposiums. “I’m a fraud,” she moans to her allergist husband Ira. “A cultural poseur. To quote Kaafka, ‘I am a cage in search of a bird’”
Marjorie’s low spirits are hardly perked up by a spouse who’d rather tend patients at the Free Clinic he started following his retirement last year or an aged mother who complains constantly about her digestive ills (“I have not had a satisfactory bowel movement in four years”). In fact nothing cheers her up until the chance arrival of childhood friend Lillian Greenblatt, renamed Lee Green to match her glamorous appearance and jet-setting lifestyle, begins to wreak changes in Marjorie’s life that she could scarcely have imagined.
Marjorie is the title character in Charles Busch’s hit Broadway comedy The Tale Of The Allergist’s wife, now playing at the La Mirada Center For The Performing Arts in a production whose terrific performances go a long way towards making Busch’s rather bizarre mishmash of a “mainstream” comedy a mostly entertaining two hours of unexpected plot twists and turns.
I’m a huge fan of Busch’s more outrageously campy earlier works including Die Mommie Die, Shanghai Moon, Psycho Beach Party, etc., all of which feature a lead female character designed to be played by an actor of the male persuasion, Busch himself in the original productions. The Tale Of The Allergist’s Wife, with its more than a tad irritating characters, material that can border on offensive even to more open-minded theatergoers, and a rather ugly plot twist at the end, is a play I like considerably less.
Fortunately, it is chock full of laughs, especially as performed by La Mirada’s all-around stellar cast, adeptly directed by the always reliable Jeff Maynard. Together, director and actors go a long way to making The Tale Of The Allergist’s Wife as enjoyable as it is.
Marilu Henner played Lee on Broadway, and like Michelle Lee, who originated the role and later reprised it at the Ahmanson in 2002, she combines girl-next-door likability and TV star glamour in equal measure, qualities which serve the globetrotting namedropper to perfection. As played by Henner, Lee is precisely the woman to dazzle her onetime best chum and to have us on her side from her first appearance, all the more reason for Marjorie (and for us in the audience) to be taken aback when Lee turns out not to be what Henner’s image and Busch have led us to expect.
Throaty-voiced Caroline Aaron, a familiar face to Woody Allen and Norah Ephron aficionados from her appearances in many of their films, is an equally fine choice to play Marjorie, a character who could hardly be more irritating and pretentious on paper but ends up considerably less so when invested with Aaron’s warmth and good humor.
The same can be said for L.A. theater treasure Eileen T’Kaye in the role of foul-mouthed, diarrhea/constipation-prone, ever-kvetching Frieda. Transformed into old age by a gray wig, lumpy jogging suit, and stooped-over shuffle, T’Kaye has such spectacular comic timing and infectious feistiness that she too makes a potentially insulting stereotype, if not likeable, than at least a good deal of fun to be with.
In lesser hands than Geoffrey Wade’s, Marjorie’s Ira might end up a henpecked cipher, but here again an actor makes a role much more than it comes across on paper, his reactions to Henner’s, Aaron’s, and T’Kaye’s antics worthy of almost as much attention as their actions.
Completing the cast is the marvelous London-to-L.A. transplant Rachid Sabitri as Mohammed, the Taubs’ Iraqi doorman, and it is to playwright Busch’s credit that a play that could easily take sides (one of Ira and Marjorie’s daughters lives in Israel and “wears a Sheitl to her condo closings” and Frieda only gives to Israel), has as its most sympathetic character a Muslim (and an Iraqi no less) whose opinions on the Middle East conflicts seem entirely balanced and fair-minded.
Busch has updated his script to allow his characters to live in 2010, not necessarily a bad idea, but one which loses some of the original’s laughs.
Not surprisingly for a La Mirada/McCoy Rigby Entertainment show, The Tale Of The Allergist’s Wife looks and sounds great. Bruce Goodrich’s richly appointed Upper West Side apartment fills the La Mirada Theatre’s wide stage with upscale elegance for which Terry Hanrahan’s first-rate properties design shares credit. Julie Keen’s costumes tell us much about the characters, with special snaps due Lee’s trendy designer outfits, all of which look spectacular on Henner. Craig Pierce’s vivid lighting reveals the designer’s expertise, and Josh Bessom’s sound design not only amplifies voices to perfection but sets just the right moods through music. Buck Mason is production manager, David Cruise is technical director, Hanrahan is assistant stage manager, and Lisa Palmire is production stage manager.
La Mirada and McCoy Rigby deserve applause for picking a show that may well push many subscribers out of their theatrical comfort zone, and if The Tale Of The Allergist’s Wife doesn’t end up everyone’s cup of tea (it’s not particularly mine), few will be able to fault the all-around terrific work being done on stage and off.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
October 5, 2010
Photos: Michael Lam