It takes a singular talent to make misery as mirthful as Charles Busch does in his extraordinarily funny new play at Manhattan Theater Club, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” The alchemy is not entirely his own doing, of course. In Linda Lavin, who plays his Biblically depressed Upper West Side heroine, Busch has a more than able ally, an actress who can kvetch with the grace, flexibility and fortitude of a coloratura soprano.
As the play opens, a load of grief has Lavin’s Marjorie Taub glued to the sofa. Not for her the piddling woes of her fellow middle-aged Jewish mothers — the kids who disappoint, the mother who oppresses, the husband who benevolently indulges. Although she’s afflicted with those, too, God only knows, Marjorie is also the victim of more cosmic dissatisfactions. When her husband Ira (Tony Roberts), the retired doctor, asks what ails her, the answer is a nasal cri de coeur: “Perdu. Utter damnation. The loss of my soul.”
Put more plainly, Marjorie Taub is suffering from a dangerous but hitherto under-analyzed disease indigenous to New York City: a crippling feeling of unworthiness fed by chronic overexposure to high culture. Unlike Ira, Marjorie knows “Waiting for Godot” isn’t “about two guys stranded by the Tappan Zee Bridge.” But she’s not really sure what it is about, either — and it’s killing her. “I’m a fraud. A cultural poseur. To quote Kafka, ‘I am a cage in search of a bird,’ ” she wails, nevertheless protesting that that unfortunate incident in the Disney Store was not a suicide attempt.
Busch deserves a citation from the Centers for Disease Control for so thoroughly — and so wittily — dissecting the causes and symptoms of this ailment, but he may have to settle for the gratifying laughter of audiences who will be packing Manhattan Theater Club’s tiny Stage II for as long as the play runs (or until it moves elsewhere, as it certainly should). The play, impeccably acted by its cast of five and directed with brisk flair by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow, may well prove to be the comic peak of the theater season.
Marjorie’s peculiar odyssey from self-loathing to self-appreciation is the subject of the play, the most accessible yet from Busch, a longtime expert at creating — and usually personifying — larger-than-life damsels in distress. In most of his previous comedies, Busch posed his heroines in daffy variations on stock situations from cinema history, from film noirs to Frankie and Annette pics. Here he turns for inspiration to the cryptic slices of theatrical anomie served up betimes by Harold Pinter and Edward Albee (with a further nod to John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation”), plays in which the arrival of a surprise visitor invariably heralds a trek through murky psychological waters. As usual, Busch pays clever homage, but in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” he plays down his usual instincts toward spoofery, using his quirky premise — a Neil Simon heroine in Pinterland — merely as a jumping-off point for a smart satire of urban pretensions.
The play’s animating incident is the sudden arrival of a mysterious figure from Marjorie’s past, Lee Green (Michele Lee), nee Lillian Greenbaum, who shows up on Marjorie’s doorstep and at first gives her spirits a much-needed lift. While Marjorie’s been dozing through readings at the 92nd Street Y for decades, the glamorous Lee has led a life of fantastic accomplishment — she takes credit for introducing Princess Diana to land mines and Andy Warhol to Campbell’s soup, just for starters.
Basking in the aura of such a captivating alter ego, Marjorie is happily distracted from the tormenting knowledge that she’s probably not going to win a Nobel prize for literature anytime soon. But is Lee what she appears to be? Is she too good to be true, literally — just a figment of Marjorie’s diseased imagination, unhinged by too much indulgence in Garcia Marquez? And what are her motives for cozying up to Marjorie’s all-too-mundane family, even her mother Frieda (Shirl Bernheim), whose conversation runs to her perennial constipation?
Busch’s twists are too delicious to spoil, at least in the perfectly drawn, unfailingly delightful first act. The second does have its disappointments. Just as Lee’s unsettling presence begins to have an interesting effect on the Taub marriage, Busch wraps the play up with an abruptness that requires some melodramatic maneuvering. And Marjorie’s arrival at a sense of satisfaction with her life is somewhat deflatingly sentimental (it’s a little like Edina from “Absolutely Fabulous” going earnest on us).
It’s Marjorie’s despair, after all, that makes her such a great character, one of the most lovable theatrical creations of recent seasons. While the perfectly cast Roberts underplays amiably, and Lee, the adorably querulous Bernheim and Amil Kumar (as a helpful doorman), all provide polished support, the play belongs to Lavin. She rubs out all possibility of caricature with a performance of wonderful emotional intensity. The laughs she lands easily, with a mere gesture or inflection, a frozen look, a carefully timed pause. But Lavin doesn’t just hopscotch through Busch’s one-liners. She makes Marjorie’s paroxysms of self-loathing both achingly funny and honestly touching, a delicate and rewarding accomplishment.