Charles Busch’s outrageously funny Broadway hit makes the transition to L.A. with all the jokes generating laughs in the right places. Producers concerned that the Upper West Side-centric “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” would have a short shelf life west of the Hudson River should have their fears assuaged by this Ahmanson production, with the most recent cast from the Ethel Barrymore Theater shipped here intact. It doesn’t play quite as well as it did on Broadway, yet the comedy’s lone failing — a less-than-fulfilling ending — plays more smoothly here as Valerie Harper’s wide emotional range finds a focus in the final scene.
It isn’t until the second act, when all the characters have assembled — the reunited childhood friends, the cantankerous mother, the spying doorman and Dr. Do-good –that “Allergist’s Wife” finds its footing. The joke-laden first act plays mostly as a setup in this production, as Lee (Michele Lee) winds up at the door of friend Marjorie Taub (Harper) she hasn’t seen since they were 12-year-olds in the Bronx, and within a week Marjorie has been lifted out of a malaise brought on by her realization that she lacks certain intellectual qualities. (Mother issues surface as well — fodder for the play’s funniest lines).
In act two, Lee glues herself to Marjorie and husband Ira (Tony Roberts), who stay fascinated by her endless talk about her wild adventures with the famous and fabulous — the Nixons, Princess Diana, Placido Domingo, and on and on. The Taubs are put to a host of tests — the immediate one being sexual, the bigger picture being life’s purpose — that weigh on this friendship, with the Taubs trying to bow out of their relationship with Lee, maybe gracefully, maybe not.
Busch’s text wonderfully sets the table for conflict as well as reconciliation, but the rush to clear the plates after dinner (metaphorically) and get everyone out the door (literally) cuts into the nourishing qualities of “Allergist’s Wife.”
Theatergoers who caught the original New York production with Linda Lavin will find a far broader characterization from Harper, who opens the play distraught and disheveled, approaching the look of a bag lady with her forearm bandaged as the result of a figurine-breaking incident at the Disney Store. Harper plays Marjorie at wit’s end, her depression as cureless as her mother’s constipation (a running gag). Her act one rejuvenation becomes therefore jarring; it’s only in the second act that we see a consistent Marjorie.
Timing on opening night, especially between Harper and Roberts, was stuck somewhere between sitcom and classic theater. In the more dramatic moments, however, such as the showdown between Marjorie and Lee, Harper scores like a champion marksman, her inner rage boiling and finding a worthy target for a change. Since all the actors have been playing together at the Ethel Barrymore theater for a year, the timing issue is odd. But it may be due to the reconfiguration here of Santo Loquasto’s long, bookcase-filled set and a disconcerting sound design that had actors either over- or undermiked, depending on where they stood on the stage.
As Marjorie borders on manic, her f-word-spewing mother, Frieda (Shirl Bernheim), dominates the first act in a way she didn’t on Broadway. There her role played as bonus comedic relief, generating huge laughs; here, she’s the strongest and most consistent personality on the stage in the opening scenes.
Roberts has added a nebbishy quality to his perf, tightening his neck muscles and giving himself a slightly stodgy air. Recently retired, Ira is running a free clinic in Harlem and guest lecturing, and early on is being complimented at every turn. Playing off Lavin, Roberts’ Dr. Taub had a hard time accepting anyone’s kind words; up against Harper, the allergist has an underlying sense of entitlement to kind comments — Lord knows it’s a struggle dealing with Marjorie and Frieda, he must be thinking.
Lee delivers a well-honed perf that’s shiny and wonderfully loaded with disguised superficiality. When Ira questions the existence of Lee, the plausibility of his question resonates nicely due to the Lee’s sparkle and Marjorie’s 180-degree renaissance. The actress is a captivating presence and in the second half she steals the show, even with the fewest gut-busting lines of anyone.
Lynne Meadow’s direction hasn’t changed much from the Manhattan Theater Club to Broadway to the Ahmanson, though here the stage has the possibility of far more east-west action than the boxy Ethel Barrymore space. Meadow uses the new venue well, clustering the performers consistently and using the openness to exaggerate Marjorie’s pain and pin Lee in the corner.
Neogothic orchestral music — something out of “Beetlejuice”? — plays in the between-scene blackouts and fails to enhance the show.