Dan Butler, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Richard Masur, and
David Garrison in Olive and the Bitter Herbs
(© James Leynse)
Dan Butler, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Richard Masur, and
David Garrison in Olive and the Bitter Herbs
(© James Leynse)
A group of New Yorkers seemingly brought together by chance find that their ties run deeper than they could imagine in Charles Busch's fantastical new comedy Olive and the Bitter Herbs, now being presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. Much like its title character, the aging actress Olive (Marcia Jean Kurtz), the play can be both acerbically hilarious and just a little bit scattered. Luckily, Busch couldn't ask for a more able cast for his contemporary comedy than the one that's been assembled here.

The work centers on a tumultuous few days around Passover as Olive -- much to her chagrin -- bonds with a trio of her neighbors, thanks to Wendy (played with usual flair by Julie Halston), a theatrical company manger who has appointed herself as a volunteer caregiver for the older woman.

Olive comes to know two of her most despised neighbors, Robert (David Garrison) and Trey (Dan Butler) after Wendy invites them over hoping to resolve a feud that Olive has begun over the long-term couple's fondness for aromatic cheeses. (She's furious over the fact that the odors seep into her home).

Both men soon find themselves drawn increasingly into Olive's world, but not because of her personality: they're completely fascinated by the fact that Olive claims to see a ghost in a mirror hanging in her well-worn but lovingly appointed Kips Bay apartment (from scenic designer Anna Louizos).

The roster of frequent guests at Olive's is soon rounded out by Sylvan (played with natural ebullience and genuine warmth by Richard Masur), a three-time widower visiting from Argentina. He initially stops by to try to smooth over a disagreement Olive's had with his daughter -- the president of the building's co-op board -- and finds himself smitten with his hostess.

Kurtz gives a bravura performance, which combines just the right amount of hyperbolic indignation, grandmotherly cuddliness, and zealous spiky anger. And in fact, her sterling work makes Olive a woman that many will find themselves caring for despite her flaws. Moreover, Halston and Kurtz share a marvelous chemistry and together they can fire off some of Busch's most delectably zinging dialogue with aplomb.

Garrison and Butler turn in deliciously detailed performances, which capture both the men's deep affection for one another as well as the slight fractures in their relationship. Additionally, Butler's work at the end of the first act -- during a particularly nontraditional Seder, where the bitter herbs of the play's title are featured -- is particularly notable. As Trey becomes increasingly inebriated during the evening, his work is both hysterical and uncomfortably nasty.

Throughout the first act, and part of the second, director Mark Brokaw's production zips merrily from scene to scene. But during the piece's final moments in which the characters reveal long-held secrets and buried memories that reveal how truly interconnected they are to one another -- and, perhaps, the specter -- the play simply feels manipulatively forced.

Still, audiences are apt to forgive Busch's misstep, since the show is simply too lovable to hold a grudge against for long, sort of like Olive herself.