Charles Busch's well-honed comedy of Manhattan socialites plays like a fine Jewish whine
Actor-playwright Charles Busch -- sans his actor hat in this case -- has created some very interesting and very funny characters in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, the recent Broadway success now touring the country. At the center of his satirical take on contemporary Manhattan culture is Marjorie Taub (Valerie Harper), a wealthy doctor's wife whose children have long flown the coop and who fills her days with every kind of high-brow cultural pursuit you can think of -- art films, gallery lectures, literary symposia -- in an effort to stave off midlife ennui.
Marjorie is inconsolably despondent when the play opens -- she's still reeling from the death of her therapist a month earlier -- and her boorish husband Ira (Mike Burstyn) and crotchety mother Frieda (Sondra James) only exacerbate the situation. But Marjorie gets a bold new attitude when a childhood friend Lee (Jana Robbins) reappears out of the blue and inspires Marjorie with her far-fetched tales of a jet-setting, single socialite lifestyle that has supposedly put her on location with everyone from Andy Warhol and the Nixons to Princess Diana and Placido Domingo.
Harper brings a highly polished comedic skill to the role of Marjorie, imbuing her with an easy-to-root-for pluck as she rediscovers the joys of living and tries to get a grip on what she wants her middle-aged self to look like. James's Frieda is a well-timed foil for Harper, and instead of settling for a mere stock rendition of overbearing Jewish mother, James pulls off an engaging characterization that ensures Frieda's relevance throughout the performance.
Burstyn hits a nice stride in his take on Ira's professional ego and domestic complacency, and Robbins's Lee is exactly the kind of seductive slick-talker she needs to be to ingratiate herself with Marjorie and Ira as she does, leading to a transforming crisis that stands to redefine everything Marjorie believes in and treasures.
The relatively minor problem with the production lies with Lynne Meadow's direction, which doesn't adequately allow for the cast to step back from its broadest moments when audience reaction is cooler than expected. A mid-opening week Washington crowd certainly needed most of the first act to really warm up to the cast and Busch's script, and they probably would have done so quicker if the production maintained a crisper pace in the initial absence of showstopping laughs.