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The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

Playwright Charles Busch
In The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, what, you may wonder, is Charles Busch's obsession with bowel movements? The playwright has always had a knack for pushing the boundaries of good taste (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, anyone?), but all this toilet talk is something of a shock for the Manhattan Theatre Club audience -- after all, the mature ladies and gents weren't weaned on "South Park". But Busch is one of the only playwrights I know who can use his potty mouth to produce such clean comedy.

A bowel-centric Jewish geriatric named Frieda isn't the focus of Allergist's Wife

(though she gets her share of laughs). The play belongs to Marjorie, and the show belongs to Linda Lavin. On the surface, Marjorie has it good: She's married to a doctor (played by the terrifically poker-faced Tony Roberts), her $900,000 co-op is handsomely furnished, she has a stunning collection of cashmere, and her mother doesn't live with her (she lives down the block). But a near-psychotic episode in the Disney store -- or was it "a political statement against the Disney corporation"? -- reveals Marjorie's instability, and not even a wedge of Entenmann's can help her now.

Tony Roberts
Marjorie is as depressed as all the philosophers she's constantly quoting; as complex as the Herman Hesse world she's obsessed with. How can her successful but down-to-earth husband -- who walks the streets in a velour track suit and a fanny pack -- possibly appreciate her intricacies? So when a glamorous, globetrotting childhood friend Lee (Michele Lee) re-enters her life in an only-in-New-York moment, it appears that Marjorie's existential prayers have been answered.

Lee is a woman who's lived better than you, me, and most of the free world combined: She's shared soup with Andy Warhol, discussed landmines with Princess Di, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a woman who can use the phrase "whimsical Szechuan sense of humor" and get away with it. She's also a self-proclaimed "passionate pain in the ass". If Mary Tyler Moore could turn the world on with a smile, Lee could turn it upside down. And she does.
Exactly how she does it is the unexpected twist of Busch's clever (if contrived) plot. I can't give it all away, but I will tell you that the best part involves something that's (1) French and (2) every heterosexual male's fantasy. It's a delight to report that Busch is back doing what he does best -- sassy, savvy, New York comedy. (Recent ventures like Queen Amarantha and the musical The Green Heart weren't as successful.) With this comedy, you see a lot of the set-ups, but the payoffs are sweet nonetheless. And you could quibble that the references are too insular (would anyone in Albany appreciate Marjorie listing The Roundabout as a charity? or get the mentions of BAM, the New School, or Fairway?), this New Yorker got every line -- and I wasn't the only one.

Linda Lavin
Speaking of laughs, let's talk about Lavin. She gets them all. Busch wrote this role for her, and let's hope there are more to come. (It's a pairing along the lines of Terrence McNally and Nathan Lane.) You haven't seen anything until you've seen Linda Lavin trying to bury herself, head first, in a chair-and-a-half. Her face gets so red she matches the furniture. It is, as the MasterCard commercials say, priceless.

As Lee, the wonderfully preserved Michele Lee isn't quite as dead-on, but she does her job and more. She's certainly glamorous, especially in Chinese-patterned silk and a purple demi-bra, but she lacks the mystery and killer instinct her character requires. Still, she and Lavin face off well, and Roberts plays off both ladies like a pro. As the foul-mouthed, feces-minded Frieda -- a.k.a. Marjorie's hellion of a mother -- Shirl Bernheim is fine, but her comic timing isn't on the level of the others. What's needed is Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls, or Nancy Marchand from The Sopranos. Bernheim just can't land all those great lines.

Mention must also be made of Anil Kumar, who's something of a standout as Mohammed the doorman. What I appreciated even more than this fresh-faced actor was his character. He's a handyman, an Iraqi historian, and a harmless observer. He helps keep Marjorie grounded by chopping olives and reading books with her. I couldn't help but wonder: Who's watching the door while he's holed up in her apartment? But this is, after all, Busch's world. This is the playwright who once killed a character with electrolysis. Don't overanalyze -- just enjoy the Tale he tells.

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