Following hot on the heels of David Auburn’s “Proof,” Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” has made a smooth transition to Broadway, where Manhattan Theater Club now has two new American plays in residence — cause for celebration in itself.
Both productions arrive with cast and creative teams essentially intact, and are perhaps most notable as showcases for the terrific turns of their female stars. The chief delight of the “Tale” transfer is the chance it affords a wide audience to experience Linda Lavin’s transcendently funny Marjorie Taub, to use a description that would be dear to the heart of this Herman Hesse-obsessed, BAM-going, New School-attending New York matron.
In Marjorie, Busch, the accomplished (drag) actor and playwright who has long specialized in both sending up and celebrating female archetypes, has drawn something entirely fresh: a portrait of the would-be artist as a frustrated middle-aged woman. Marjorie has all the accoutrements of Jewish Upper West Side success — the esteemed doctor husband, the $900,000 co-op, the grown-up, (fairly) successful girls — and just one major blight, a bubonic plague of a mother.
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But as the play opens a new blight has descended upon her: Following the death of her beloved therapist, Marjorie is visited by a Kafka-worthy fit of anomie. “Are you hungry?” asks her befuddled husband Ira (Tony Roberts) as Marjorie lies listlessly on the chaise longue. “I’m hungry for meaning!” comes the volcanic reply. The play describes Marjorie’s emotional rejuvenation under the captivating influence of girlhood friend Lee Green (Michele Lee), formerly Lillian Greenblatt, whose cornucopia of accomplishments give Marjorie a vicarious lift. Alas, the succubus of misery Lee helps lift is replaced by the incubus Lee herself turns out to be.
As was to be expected from an actress of her caliber, Lavin’s performance in the role has grown richer. She’s as blisteringly funny as before, certainly, and her delivery of Busch’s sharp-witted one-liners should be studied for its impeccable combination of emotional veracity and stage savvy. The double-takes, too, are worthy of awe, as Marjorie reels from disbelief at her husband’s utter incomprehension of her existential crise to dismay at her mother’s relentless obsession with her bowel functions (rather crassly overplayed by the playwright, actually, in tandem with the old-lady-with-a-foul-mouth act).
But as Lavin clearly knows, behind every great comic character is a tragic one fighting to get out, and she inflects Marjorie’s dazed misery, her air of sleepwalking clumsily through her padded life, with authentic layers of grief. When Marjorie tells the newly arrived Lee of the novel she once wrote and then discarded, Lavin wins the explosive laughs embedded in the description of this preposterous book (“Plato and Helen Keller were major characters…”), but she also honors the dignifying truth of Marjorie’s disappointed ambitions.
Although Marjorie’s relentless pursuit of culture and her overweening artistic pretensions are the subject of much of the play’s ripest humor, both Busch and Lavin have real affection and respect for this character, whose insecurities aren’t so much a sign of inferiority as a mark of deep emotional and intellectual hungers — things far more to be admired than the name-dropping trawl through the 20th century that is Lee’s decidedly suspect (and also hilarious) curriculum vitae. Although Marjorie is funny, in Lavin’s hands she’s not just a joke.
Supporting Lavin’s memorable portrait are the polished comic performances of the rest of the cast under the brisk direction of MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow. There’s the priceless underplaying of Roberts as the mensch Ira, the braying ferociousness of Shirl Bernheim as Marjorie’s self-pitying mother and the crisp charisma Lee brings to the role of the interloping Lee. (One might only wonder what a contrasting performance by a comedienne on the order of Christine Baranski or J. Smith-Cameron might have brought to this ambiguous role.) Anil Kumar is appealing in the small role of the doorman — and he now provides a sort of amuse-bouche for Busch’s large gay following in the play’s opening moments, wearing a snugly tailored T-shirt over a gym-buffed physique.
Santo Loquasto’s handsome set, expanded considerably from the dimensions of MTC’s second stage, is now the perfect picture of upper-middle-class splendor. Ann Roth’s defining costumes and Christopher Akerlind’s subtle lighting accessorize it with finesse.
The only bad news is that Busch has not solved the play’s conceptual problems: the second act is still muddled and ultimately unsatisfactory. But in Lavin’s assured hands, Marjorie Taub, the heroine of a Greek tragedy stuck in a Loehmann’s world, transcends the play’s flaws. And as the explosive laughter rippling through the Barrymore Theater attests, her saga is providing Broadway with the funniest play to be seen thereabouts in several seasons.