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Olive and the Bitter Herbs

"Olive and the Bitter Herbs" finds scribe Charles Busch in teddy-bear drag, dispensing warmth and compassion to a character who isn't worth the cuddles.

Olive - Marcia Jean Kurtz
Wendy - Julie Halston
Robert - David Garrison
Trey - Dan Butler
Sylvan - Richard Masur

“Olive and the Bitter Herbs” finds scribe Charles Busch in teddy-bear drag, dispensing warmth and compassion to a character who isn’t worth the cuddles. In her sharp-elbowed perf, Marcia Jean Kurtz makes no emotional excuses for the evil-tempered Olive, who bites every hand extended to her in friendship. But neither does the playwright — a fatal misstep which accounts for the sour taste of his comic fantasy about the nastiest woman you ever met and the neighbors who play contrived roles in her unearned redemption.

Busch clearly loves writing about difficult women, a species that covers everyone from the neurotic Manhattan matron who had a full-blown identity crisis in his hit 2000 comedy “The Allergist’s Wife” to the monstrous movie queens he plays so convincingly in drag.

Olive Fisher (Marcia Jean Kurtz), a mean-spirited septuagenarian with an all-consuming grudge against the world and everyone in it, seems an ideal candidate for Busch’s comic purposes. Kurtz, whose copious film and TV credits post-date a memorable career in Off and Off Off Broadway experimental theater, doesn’t miss a beat in her delicious delivery of Olive’s comic lines. More credit to her, she plays this unlovable character without condescension or phony emotive pleas for forgiveness.

Back in her Equity days, Olive was proud to be known as “the Queen of Commercials.” (Her snarling “Gimme the sausage!” spot is still considered “a classic.”) But Olive doesn’t work much these days, which fuels her incendiary temper, and she’s living alone — which is just the way she likes it — in the last rent-controlled apartment of a Kip’s Bay co-op.

Although the uncomfortable seating plan of Olive’s living room (designed by Anna Louizos) slyly reflects her hostile attitude toward visitors, the quaint clutter suggests a softer, gentler side of the character’s misanthropic nature that fails to surface in the play. (That pretty collection of antique fans — what’s that about?)

The only bit of decor that seems precious to Olive is the antique mirror that hangs on a side wall and emits weird lights (designed by Mary Louise Geiger) and the tinkling sound of bells (via John Gromada). Olive, who has suffered two “episodes” (better known in the medical profession as “strokes”), that have shaken her equanimity, is convinced that the mirror is haunted by a friendly ghost — one who may even love her.

That belief comes to be shared by various unwanted visitors who blunder into this dragon’s den, starting with Olive’s friend Wendy, a perky masochist played to comic perfection by the invaluable Julie Halston. A stalwart in the legendary corps de crazies who launched Busch’s career, Halston knows from comic teamwork, egging on Kurtz in the bitter banter that gives the play its verbal sparkle.

Like Wendy, the gay couple next door winningly played by David Garrison and Dan Butler (nice casting from helmer Mark Brokaw) also submit to the lash of Olive’s corrosive tongue because they, too, believe they are receiving spectral messages from the oddly familiar ghost in the mirror.

Thin as it is, the mirror gimmick serves to draw enough of a crowd (rounded out by a genial widower played with saintly forbearance by Richard Masur) for the play’s comic centerpiece — a Seder in which Olive witheringly interprets the bitter symbols of Pesach for the shocked goyim.

“I forgot how much I enjoyed this holiday,” she says, after explaining with great relish how the ritual dishes commemorate “the misery and tears of the Jewish people” and “the agony of the enslaved Israelites.”

No one’s saying that Charles Busch can’t write comic characters, only that he doesn’t quite know what to do with them once they’ve delivered their funny lines. It’s not even clear here whether he’s satirizing or sympathizing with those post-hoc “families” patched together from the lonesome remnants of humanity who live in big cities.

As for Olive, there are plenty of opportunities for her to reveal more depths of character and Kurtz is quite capable of playing any such moments of dramatic truth. But alas, Olive remains a sketch of a person — amusing company for a brief visit, but no one you want to stick around and chew the horseradish with.

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Olive and the Bitter Herbs

59E59 Theaters; 199 seats; $65 top

Production: A Primary Stages presentation, in association with Daryl Roth and Bob Boyett, of a play in two acts by Charles Busch. Directed by Mark Brokaw.

Creative: Set, Anna Louizos; costumes, Suzy Benzinger; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; original music and sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, William H. Lang. Opened Aug. 16, 2011. Reviewed Aug. 11. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: Olive - Marcia Jean Kurtz
Wendy - Julie Halston
Robert - David Garrison
Trey - Dan Butler
Sylvan - Richard Masur

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