Suppose you’re an edgy but also starving New York performer, concocting scripts allowing you to impersonate various movie divas but in genre B-movie stories with vibrant titles like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party (which then actually becomes a B-movie.)
But after writing the book for a failed musical, you are told by the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club—the place where scruffy downtown (the Village, etc.) meets Broadway—that she’ll produce your next play, sight unseen.
So with your downtown dues paid, you write about uptown characters—an Upper West Side Jewish family—for an actress with Broadway cred, and show it to an audience that gets every comic New York nuance that skilled pros Linda Lavin and Tony Roberts can produce.
It’s a hit, it’s Broadway bound—but here’s the twist. The play is so well constructed, the characters so weirdly interesting and the lines so funny that for more than a decade audiences without a New York clue love it at the Bucks County (PA) Playhouse, the Bowie Community Theatre (MD) and community playhouses from Oklahoma City to Rutland, Vermont and Boca Raton, Florida.
The technical theatrical name for this kind of play is gold mine. The play is The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife by Charles Busch, currently onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.
In a spacious apartment (nicely designed by Calder Johnson, with properties by Laura Rhinehart), the middle-aged Marjorie (Cynthia Kosiak) is discussing a Nadine Gordimer novel with Mohammed, the doorman (Pryncz Lotoj.)
Marjorie, we soon learn, is in existential crisis, afraid her love of literature (Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse) is meaningless intellectual pretension. Her husband Ira (Arnold Waddell) is a recently retired allergist, cluelessly wallowing in his own saintliness. But he brings her good news: the Disney Store won’t press charges. Marjorie’s crisis was also expressed in a ceramic figure-breaking rampage.
The family circle is completed by her mother Frieda (Denise Ryles) who lives down the hall, and spends a lot of time comically complaining at their kitchen table—a Jewish Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls. But their world is invaded by Lee (Gloria Montgomery), Marjorie’s long-lost childhood friend who is now a glamorous and dangerous woman, a worldly name-dropper (she gave Warhol the idea of painting soup cans etc.) who may have more than one agenda. That is, if she’s real.
Busch’s starting point was to write a Pinter or Albee play about Jewish characters. The result is midway between the plays of Wallace Shawn and Woody Allen movies, with some Neil Simon snappiness and structure. Family memories provided reality (some lines are so outrageous that they could only have come from life) but Busch also plays with concepts like the golem, a figure derived from Jewish stories and used here as a projection of hidden desires. The resemblance of the play’s title to Boccaccio’s tales is probably not coincidental. It has the quality of a naturalistic fable.
Director Scott Malcolm’s aim seems to be clarity, with a bright stage and actors moving downstage center for key speeches. That often works for comedy, and it does for this one. The actors create convincing characters with individual styles, and they work well together. The early scenes are masterful in showing us the characters and situation, and though there’s a grab-bag sitcom quality to much of what follows, the provocative and mysterious Lee animates the stage.
Possible caveats: there’s some scatological and other potentially offensive humor, and topical references are more than a decade old (the play premiered in 2000.) Still, it’s an intriguing, funny play and a lively evening. Jenneveve Hood’s eye-catching costumes serve the play well. The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays weekends at North Coast Rep through August 17.