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A CurtainUp Review
Tale of the Allergist's Wife
By Elyse Sommer
Are you hungry? -- Ira
I'm hungry for meaning! -- Marjorie
Meet Marjorie Taub (Linda Lavin). A $900,000 condo within walking distance of Zabar's and a devoted doctor husband with a sufficiently remunerative specialty to support a fulfilling early retirement What more could an upper West Side matron of fifty something want?
Well for one thing, while Ira (Tony Roberts) has recaptured his youthful do-good spirit with running an allergy clinic for the homeless and mentoring future allergists, Marjorie is running on emotional empty. Her therapist recently died and, as she puts it, cannot be replaced "as easily as a dead Schnauzer." Her mother (Shirl Bernheim) is alive and kicking up a daily storm of complaints about her dysfunctional digestion, not to mention Marjorie's shortcomings. Worst of all, while Marjorie has pursued cultural superiority like a pilgrim in search of the holy grail, she recognizes herself as a mediocrity. After an expensive emotional outburst in a Disney store during which she broke numerous Disney figurines, she has retreated to what threatens to be permanent shivah for her unfulfilled life.
Marjorie probably sounds like your classic target for a satire on a very specific slice of life in the Big Apple, with lots of geographically on the mark insider references. She is.
Fortunately for actor-writer Charles Busch (himself a terrific and affectionate portrayer of archetypal females), Linda Lavin transcends the caricature image used to promote the show (a cartoon born-to-shop Marjorie popping out of a shopping bag spattered with banners for assorted cultural interests). Lavin sniffles and kvetches, but even as she has us laughing at her every gesture and expression, she reveals the genuine pain of a woman whose window of artistic possibilities has closed.
Busch is equally fortunate in the other actors. All are carryovers from the play's original sold out production at Manhattan Theatre Club's Off-Broadway Stage II.
Tony Roberts' Ira is the amusingly self-satisfied and patient opposite to Marjorie's manic despair and rages at her mother's complaints and putdowns. Shirl Bernheim has enough comedic skills to mitigate the over-reliance on tiresome scatological humor and the supposed shock appeal of a little old lady using the F word.
Rounding out the cast is the attractive Michelle Lee who displays great flair as the flamboyant childhood school friend who mysteriously drops back into Marjorie's life. Under her influence Marjorie picks herself up from her couch and resumes shopping and dreaming. Once entrenched as a houseguest cum Golem of Riverside Drive, Lee also seduces her hosts into a one night mènage-à-trois, which is less funny in its execution than when discussed after the fact by husband and wife.
Anil Kumar in the minor role of an over-educated young Iraqi doorman Mohammed adds a touch of youthful and hunky vigor. Mohammed is a rather typical comedy shtick character and his revelations about Lee's fund raising activities only add to the contrived, mish-mash climax in which the $900, 000 condo becomes "a fortress unconquerable."
Like the other MTC play, Proof (Our Review) which recently transferred to Broadway, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife benefits from capable direction and an outstanding design team. No doubt many audience members would be ready to move into Santo Loquasto's tasteful living room with its blend of mahogany and rust-colored wallpaper and upholstery and have Ann Roth fill their walk-in closets with some of her modish outfits.
The "Tale" of the title and the use of an enabling but troublesome outsider or golem, points to the fact that this is more fable than full-fledged play. And while Busch's Upper West Side Manhattanites will bring to mind Woody Allen movies (many starring Ira/Tony Roberts!) and Neil Simon, I'm also reminded of Cynthia Ozick's Puttermeser Stories. Ozick might well replace Herman Hesse on Marjorie's book shelf -- and serve as another role model for Busch when he's ready to abandon scatological running gags for more solidly plotted plays. Until that day, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife should find a ready audience among Manhattanites of a certain age -- even those living in apartments across the Park from Marjorie, Ira and Zabar's.