When Sue Leiser trudges across the stage and thumps onto a chair, she's there. Really there. Solid. Present. Her face in a little moue of anger and disgust as she contemplates the malfunctioning of her bowels. The minute you see her enter in The Tale of the Allergist¹s Wife at Theatre on Broadway, you settle down, because you know you're in good hands. Until this moment, there's been an up-in-the-air quality to the production, and you weren't sure what kind of evening you were in for. Was this going to be one of those outrageous, flamboyant and deliciously over-the-top Theatre Group shows, with men sashaying around in drag? Or were you in for a slightly-more-eccentric-than-usual sitcom, starring one of television's most recognizable types, the kvetchy Jewish New Yorker -- a kind of older and more depressed Rhoda Morgenstern? In Allergist's Wife, Rhoda is called Marjorie, and she's saddled with a doctor husband who ignores her while taking care of the poor, providing inspiration for students and appearing on television shows with titles like "The Good Walk Among Us." She also has a bitter mother (Leiser), whose dissertations on bowel function tend to flow when others are eating. There's also an enigmatic long-lost best friend and an Arab doorman thrown in for...I'm not sure what. Comic relief? To show our heroine's human side? The play was written before the events of September 11, 2001, placed a depth charge inside the word "Arab."
Unlike Leiser, Marjorie isn't grounded -- either as written, or as acted by Ashley Crockett. She's pretty funny, a sort of stick with a mop of frizzy hair who weeps, hurls herself onto the furniture in her bathrobe, dissects Nadine Gordimer and laments the book that she herself never finished writing: an homage to Thomas Pynchon that incorporates the ideas of some of the world's greatest thinkers and proves that punctuation is a hindrance to the revitalization of the novel. It's hard to tell whether we're supposed to sympathize with this woman, even as we laugh at her, or whether she's intended as pure caricature. Either way, Crockett hasn't quite gotten under her skin. Mark David Nelson, playing the husband, also seems a little unsure on his feet.
Enter Susan D'Autremont as long-lost friend Lee Green, posing around the set like Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous and dropping a hailstorm of names: James Baldwin, Henry Kissinger. It was Lee who alerted Princess Diana to the harm caused by unexploded land mines, Lee who served soup to Andy Warhol and set him off in an entirely new artistic direction.
Marjorie buys the whole thing. She invites Lee to move in and trails her around town, now finding joy in her usual round of concerts, obscure lectures and esoteric art events. Marjorie snaps out of her lethargy and becomes happy. But who is Lee Green really? Is she a figment of Marjorie's imagination, a doppelgänger, a golem or just a talented freeloader?
D'Autremont shares Leiser's knack for taking over a stage. As they work with her and the action progresses, Crockett and Nelson also become more believable. Unfortunately, by the second act -- having sketched in his characters and having had some pretty hilarious jokes at their expense -- playwright Charles Busch appears to have lost his way. Mother Frieda keeps complaining about her intestines, but her riskiest and funniest moments are over -- as when she chided Marjorie for planning a visit to Germany, reminding her of a "little thing called the Holocaust." There are some muddled plot twists. Then Marjorie gives a big speech about how her little family, despite its failings, represents a positive army, and it sounds as if the playwright is reaching for a pat happy ending, one that negates all the acerbic wit that's held the play aloft.
Despite all this, under Nicholas Sugar's direction, Allergist's Wife provides an entertaining evening. The otherworldly stranger who intrudes into everyday life and shakes everything up is a common dramatic device, and even if the puzzle pieces make a blurry picture when they've fallen, it's fun watching Lee and Marjorie hurl them into the air.
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