Theater Review - Woman on the verge

Vivid characters, clever comedy enliven Allergist’s Wife

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife stands out from playwright Charles Busch’s best-known works in that the women characters are all actually performed by women. Drag-driven comedies like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party are Busch’s primary claim to fame, but compared to those campy showbiz satires, Tale takes place a few steps closer to the real world.

That’s not to say that the three female roles of Tale are shrinking violets. In fact, they’re all larger than life and prone to big gestures, so it’s not a stretch to imagine men playing them. In Horizon Theatre’s production, the title character of Marjorie Taub initially comes across like a variation on the oft-verklempt Linda Richman from Mike Myers’ old “Coffee Talk” sketches.

Tale originated as a sketch, and occasionally a sketchy level of exaggeration defines Horizon’s production, directed by Heidi Cline. But the play’s rapid-fire one-liners build to clever comic situations underpinned by thoughtful themes.

Marjorie (Mary Lynn Owen), an upper-middle-class Jewish Manhattanite and self-styled intellectual, begins the play in a depression so deep she can barely raise herself from her couch. Crushed following the death of her therapist, she mopes around the apartment, at times venturing out to make a public scene.

Her family doesn’t provide ideal support. Her husband Ira (a disarming Jared Simon) is almost too positive, having taken early retirement to do good works, like run an allergy clinic for the homeless. While Ira basks in the glow of his own saintliness, Marjorie’s mother Frieda (Marianne Fraulo), who lives down the hall, is a relentlessly negative nag. A stereotypical, kvetching Jewish mother, Frieda bemoans her bowel movements (or lack thereof), usually during Marjorie’s mealtimes.

The humor feels forced in Tale’s early scenes and the characterizations overly broad, despite Owen’s amusing bits of physical comedy. At one point she slides down the length of her refrigerator, as if she’s gone suddenly boneless. Busch’s script finds its comic footing with the arrival of Lee (Leigh Campbell-Taylor), an old friend of Marjorie’s who pays a call. Lee is everything that Marjorie is not: a crusading, jet-setting world traveler who drops names with hilarious matter-of-factness. She claims to have given Andy Warhol and Princess Diana the ideas for soup cans and land mines, respectively.

But is Lee all she seems? Whether or not she really exists — and there’s some dispute — she serves both as Marjorie’s muse and her id. Her example inspires Marjorie to shake off her depression and become active and creative again. But Lee takes being a free spirit to extremes, becoming a disruptive presence in the Taub household and encouraging decadent behavior that comfortably bourgeois Marjorie and Ira are utterly unprepared for.

As Lee, Campbell-Taylor has a stage presence that’s pleasingly reminiscent of Christine Baranski, delivering her lines with a perfect “fake” aristocratic diction through her sharky smile. She vividly portrays Lee as a self-described “sensualist,” enthusing over Chinese dumplings or slithering over the furniture to ensnare her latest romantic conquest.

During the play’s climax, Marjorie and the others mention such subjects as terrorism, Saddam Hussein and Israel, and while it’s not out of character for these people to be political, the seriousness of the topics undermines the laughs. When Busch wrote the play in 2000, he could not have anticipated how relevant terrorism would become.

Mostly, Horizon’s Tale feels almost nostalgically like a solid Woody Allen script from his 1980s Mia Farrow period. While Allen’s New York stories are disappearing into the margins, Horizon’s Tale of the Allergist’s Wife makes a more than acceptable substitute.