Los Angeles Theater Review: THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST’S WIFE (La Mirada)

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by Tony Frankel on October 8, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles


Some playwrights have all the luck: Charles Busch wrote a series of theatrical cult hits in the 1980’s, such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, that were concurrently a send up and homage to classic movie genres; the main reason they were so damn funny is that Mr. Busch donned drag and appeared in his own plays. His brilliant timing – every gesture and slit-eyed nuance – was just the type of physical buffoonery that every wanna-be farceur should study. There was a moment in Vampire that Mr. Busch had the line, “How dare you toss me aside like a piece of meat!” But he took over one minute just to say the word “meat.” With the slowest of slow burns, he said, “Like a piece of ME…eee…EEeee………ee…………T!” You had to be there. The audience roared. There are times when you know you are in the presence of a STAR, regardless of the lines that come out of their mouths.

Upon revisiting Vampire, sans Mr. Busch, my theatre companion actually punched me in the arm for taking him to “such a piece of shit.” “I don’t know what happened,” I said. But I did know. It was not Charles Busch the playwright that was great; it was the performer (which becomes abundantly clear when you view the movies taken from his plays, such as Psycho Beach Party, where even the radiant Lauren Ambrose could not save the role originally played by Mr. Busch in drag).

Which brings us to The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Busch’s first play to make it to Broadway, receiving a revival at La Mirada Theatre (being billed as a premiere of a “newly revised version,” it’s even less funny than the original). The 2000 Manhattan Theatre Club outing was written as a vehicle for Linda Lavin and critics agreed that she was the reason to see the show. And when Valerie Harper filled Lavin’s shoes on Broadway and the subsequent tour, the success of the show mystified me (and many other critics).

Even a brilliant play like The Glass Menagerie can bomb (the Donmar production in London) or soar (Judith Ivey currently on the boards at the Taper); imagine a barely serviceable play without the actress it was intended for. And don’t forget that Bernadette Peters was cast in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway — the result was that she was jaw-droppingly out of place. Later, when Reba McEntire filled Peters’ boots, you would be hard-pressed to find a better fit of actress and role; Peters was damn near forgettable and McEntire made for one of the best nights in the theater this reviewer has ever witnessed.

Allergist’s Wife joins a pantheon of plays — Pulitzer-prize winners included — that continue being produced because the original production had a star that impelled it out of the gate. It’s a harmless, unchallenging trifle about a married, Upper West Side woman (Caroline Aaron) who is depressed because her therapist just died and her mother is a nag. (It would seem a better conflict if Mom had just died and the therapist was a nag). Well into the first act, a childhood friend (Marilu Henner) appears and challenges her to come out of her shell. Near the end of the first act, after scads of scatological gags from the Jewish mother (Eileen T’Kaye), the husband (Geoffrey Wade) has his wife believing that this childhood friend is imaginary. A few minutes later, the friend appears at the door. Blackout. I’m not kidding. That is the entire story of the first act. Along the way, only those with constipation and nagging mothers will get the chance to chuckle. Honestly, this is a 22-minute Golden Girls episode stretched out thinner than the plastic wrap on yesterday’s blintzes, with a Mom that is a carbon cutout of the Estelle Getty character (except this one gets to say “fuck” – hysterical!)

As is often the case with mediocre material, actors are left to push for laughs that are not inherent in the script. Caroline Aaron, who has played neurotic New Yorkers in more than one Woody Allen film, screams with a throaty, husky frustration that only makes her sound like she’s about to lose her voice. Miss Aaron, although likable, doesn’t even bother to find levels of delivery. And what can one say about Marilu Henner, except that she is another example of fame (her TV stint on Taxi) granting her the right to appear in vehicles such as this. No doubt the woman is radiant, appealing, and looks fabulous (that’s today’s recipe for stardom anyway), but as her character is found out to be duplicitous in the script, she opts out of any choices such as guilt, cynicism, anger … anything.

One wonders if director Jeff Maynard even bothered to discuss motivation with his players. It feels like the actors are left to their own devices and his job was to place them on the wonderful set by Bruce Goodrich.

There are placards warning us about mature material onstage. We are again warned live before the curtain comes up. That the mom says the F-word is not what you will find objectionable. The warning should say, “There really is no there there.” The only line that stuck out for me was when the mother said, “My mind is agog.”

You’re telling me?

photos by Michael Lamont

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Boulevard in La Mirada
Tues-Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on October 17, 2010
for tickets, call 562-944-9801 or visit La Mirada

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