Theater J has a prescription for the angst and general malaise of everyday life. The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is a laugh-inducing antidote to the boredom that comes with the banality of daily living. This sublimely ridiculous comedy of manners was the first mainstream play by off-Broadway, cross-dressing performance artist Charles Busch when it premiered on Broadway in 2000. Best known for his subversive, silly romps and take downs of high melodrama, like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which ran for five years, Busch has a wicked sense of humor and he’s not afraid to use it. Allergist’s Wife is enjoying a run through July 5 at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater in a Theater J production directed with verve and vivacity by Eleanor Holdridge.
Marjorie Taub can’t stop whining. Wrapped in her stylish kimono, she lies on her fainting couch doling out bitterly comic complaints about her Upper West Side life, which she fills with 92nd Street Y and Goethe House lectures, volunteer work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the homeless, and hours spent reading German literature from Hesse to Rilke to Wittgenstein. She just had a meltdown in the Disney Store, smashing hundreds of dollars’ worth of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid porcelain figurines. And her psychiatrist, Reba Fabrikant, died. First-world problems to be sure.
Husband Ira is supportive, but preoccupied. In early retirement he’s filled his days with lecturing to medical students at New York University and treating the clogged nasal passages of the homeless and poor. And, Frieda, Marjorie’s aging mother, has she got problems? Plenty. But her biggest is her bowels — and their movement, or not, which is part of every mother-daughter conversation. The sometimes foul-mouthed mom is blunt and talks blue about family members, friends, even strangers. And, like many a Jewish mother the world over, she shows her love by criticizing her daughter instead of praising her.
Then an interloper, Lee Green, enters this slightly schizophrenic family mix. A long-lost friend of Marjorie’s from the old neighborhood when they were schoolgirls in Brooklyn, Lee, nee Lillian Greenfield, is an inveterate name dropper and a skilled hanger on. From Quincy Jones to Henry Kissinger, Princess Diana to Antonio Banderas, the unbelievable namedropping and outlandish adventures she describes rise with the play’s climax, which, in playwright Busch’s best attempt to upturn expectations, culminates in a fully clothed ménage a trois (likely a first ever on the Theater J stage).
The Iraqi-born doorman, Mohammed, who observes from the side of the stage at his sentry-like post, has a minor but essential role. Jotting notes, punctuating the outrageous action as the plot swells to histrionic proportions, with sly facial expressions he smirks, yawns, guffaws, rolls his eyes, feigns interest and, occasionally, exchanges a word or two as a trusted confidante to one or the other of the Taubs.
They seem assuaged of their pretensions by befriending Mohammed, who eats their gourmet Zabar’s food and has a grand time observing the wacky ways of the rich and depressed.
As he notes at the start: “Nothing happens to the elite on the Upper West Side,” milking his role as a participant and observer of the spoiled class.
And that’s just what playwright Charles Busch is critiquing in this 15-year-old work, which still remains fresh and current. He has returned to Tale to once more take down the upper crust and the comforts of the wealthy.
For Theater J, Busch incorporated new technological touches and nuances like laptops and cell phones, which weren’t in the original script, and added au courant references to Will and Kate’s baby and other celebrity news personalities. He’s also crafted a tight quintet of characters who wear their pretentious airs without a care. Even the doorman grew up summering on the Italian coast, for God’s sake.
The five-member cast of Theater J regulars, under the sharp direction of Holdridge, maneuvers the pithy dialogue and high dramatics with aplomb. As Marjorie, Susan Rome elevates whining to an art. And Barbara Rappaport relishes her potty mouth and bowel-obsessed role as a walker-pushing Jewish mother. As interloper Lee, Lise Bruneau projects a cool slyness that is both attractive and unsettling, even devious. Paul Morella’s Ira serves up mild mannered sweetness, but is a purposefully impotent foil to Rome’s histrionics. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh gives Mohammed the devilish charm that an unattached observer needs to take down his targets. With operatic eye rolls and exaggerated shrugs, the lives of his rich and angsty charges are put into perspective.
As the unexpected plot unfolds in the understated chic of the Taub’s Riverside Drive flat, designed by Caite Hevner Kemp, it may feel familiar to Balducci-frequenting, Nieman Marcus shopping Washingtonians from Potomac, to the reaches of upper northwest Washington, down to the McMansions in McLean. The Taubs’ Upper West Side problems aren’t heart-wrenching.
They’re first-world problems: Not enough charge on your cellphone, whether to vacation in Tuscany or Costa Rica this year, fundraising to solve world hunger or promote world peace at black tie affairs in tony clubs. Theater J, known and acclaimed for its sharply focused issue plays, revels in the wit and whimsy of Busch’s work. In Allergist’s Wife, he tells us with a wicked wink, nobody ever died of ennui and like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, Busch’s pretentious family, too, is pretentious in its own way. And all we need to do is laugh, with and at them.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, through July 5, Theater J, 1529 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC. Tickets $40-$65. Call (800) 494-8497 or visit www.theaterj.org.