By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor
Playwright Charles Busch, known for cinematic parodies in which he plays the nobly suffering or conniving leading lady, takes a stab at sit-com in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, now on stage at the Pierson Playhouse through Dec. 11.
While Busch is an accomplished actor and screenwriter, and applauded for his multiple female impersonations and appearances in drag roles in early plays, his talent is hidden in this comedy. It’s difficult to figure out where he is going, and the theme, if there is a theme, is opaque.
The wife referenced in the play’s title is Marjorie Taub (Lauren Leitner), who is suffering an extreme malaise—ostensibly distraught over the death of her longtime therapist. We find her in the opening scene, curled up on the sofa mid-morning, wrapped in a fluffy robe, mukluks on her feet.
The scene is a co-op in Upper West Side Manhattan, where she lives with her husband Ira, a pleasant enough retired allergist (Phil Bartolf), who gives his time to the underserved. The couple has two grown daughters.
Exhibiting an overwhelming existential inadequacy, Marjorie finds her life, so far, pale in comparison to the great philosophers and artists she admires: men like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and most especially Herman Hesse. “Curious, yes, profound, no,” she laments. “We’re just Russian peasants from the shtetl; I’m a fraud, a cultural poseur.” In one of many dramatic fiats, she sums up her life as such: “Perdu, the utter loss of my soul.”
Her mother, Frieda Tuchman (Lois Bostwick), lives down the hall. Cut from the broadest Jewish shtick, she’s a nagging, silly woman, whom Marjorie accuses of killing her capacity to dream. “You’re a knife, a destroyer,” she rants.
“Marjorie, you’re bored,” Frieda rejoins.
Probably so, that is until Marjorie’s girlhood friend Lee (Kim Kensington) shows up and upends the comfortable, if completely dysfunctional, family dynamic. Lee, who is bigger than life, with a vigorous imagination and playfulness, spiked with a mysterious biography, kicks the plot into gear.
If we could just sit back and enjoy these harried New Yorkers flinging one-liners back and forth, yielding wall-to-wall laughs, that would be an enjoyable evening.
But Busch is no Neil Simon, and the soufflé of clichés, Jewish angst and way too much info on bodily functions collapses, exposing just flecks of a plot.
Under the direction of Ria Parody Erlich, the Theatre Palisades cast, to the person, does a superb job navigating the currents of this meandering comedy. It may be faint praise, but one ultimately grows fond of Marjorie and her confusing world. Her husband has his professional laurels to reassure him; her mother is more than absorbed in the state of her bowels, but Marjorie is marooned, figuring out who she is at this stage in her life.
In Hesse’s Siddhartha, Marjorie’s all-time favorite novel, the young man Siddhartha leaves his family for a contemplative life. As he seeks wisdom, he finds nothing. He concludes that seeking means having a goal. But finding means being free, being open, and having no goal. Maybe that’s what Marjorie and we learn at the conclusion of the play. The mysteries of life are just that, mysteries.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., at Pierson Playhouse, 941 Temescal Canyon Rd. Tickets: (310) 454-1970 or www.theatrepalisades.org.