The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

A revival of the sitcom-like comedy about midlife angst on New York’s Upper West Side plays Boston’s Lyric Stage.

Joel Colodner as Ira, Zaven Ovian as Mohammed, Ellen Colton as Frieda, Marina Re as Marjorie in Charles Busch's Tale of the Allergist's Wife, directed by Larry Coen, at Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
Joel Colodner as Ira, Zaven Ovian as Mohammed, Ellen Colton as Frieda, and Marina Re as Marjorie in Charles Busch's Tale of the Allergist's Wife, directed by Larry Coen, at Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
(© Mark S. Howard)

Perhaps it's time to put to rest all plays about restless, middle-class women who have lost their zest for the self-aggrandizing, intellectual pursuits. The targets are too familiar and too easy: the bored housewife with time on her hands, the kvetching Jewish mother-in-law, the bland husband escaping out the door of the luxe apartment on New York's Upper West Side to a more compelling life at his office.

These thoughts come to mind on viewing the Lyric Stage Company revival of Charles Busch's sitcom-like comedy, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. The production is part of the national celebration of Busch's 30-year anniversary in the theater. The play, which premiered in 2000, marked Busch's successful foray into commercial theater, racking up 777 performances on Broadway before becoming a favorite on the regional circuit. To be sure, the work delivers lots of laughs from the snappy, one-liner comebacks and the recognizable tribal customs of the characters. However, Busch is poking fun at these people, and it makes the viewer a bit queasy to do the same.

The lights come up on Marjorie, a woman in crisis because the recent death of her therapist has left her adrift. She's been in her pajamas for over a month, despite the pleas of her husband, Dr. Ira Taub, a retired allergist who runs a clinic for the homeless, and her mother, Frieda, who lives in a studio down the hall. Frieda enters and exits the Taub apartment at will, spouting opinions and complaints from her potty mouth, all the better to run down her daughter, when she's not complaining about the ailments of her digestive system.

An unexpected, and perhaps pre-planned, knock on the door signals a surprise visit from the glamorous Lee, a childhood friend from the past. Within a few minutes, Lee has captured Marjorie's heart with her tales of an adventurous life — single, of course — studded with famous names with whom she has dined and slept. Marjorie enters a new round of shopping, lectures at the 92nd Street Y, and avant-garde performances at BAM, including a Gaelic version of the Orestia, performed by an Irish theater company, shepherded with enthusiasm by her new-found comrade. Lee proceeds to muscle in on the entire family when she moves into the guest room of the Taub apartment. She cooks exotic dinners, and even lures Marjorie and Ira into a sexual threesome that leaves them reeling. However, Lee turns into a Frankenstein, or a Golem, as Marjorie describes her, and the couple reclaim control of their life.

Under spot-on direction by Larry Coen, the Lyric Stage production takes off at a dead run and ratchets up from there. Coen has imbued the excellent acting ensemble with his own masterful sense of timing, including turning every gimmick into a running gag. Marina Re as Marjorie is no less dramatic than Lady Macbeth in recounting her problems. She is only to be outdone by Ellen Colton as her mother Frieda, who whines in every key on the scale. In contrast, Caroline Lawton's Lee is cool and precise in pushing the right buttons to assure the outcome she desires. Joel Colodner makes Ira into a pushover of a pussycat, following Marjorie's every lead. Zaven Ovian plays Mohammed the doorman as a figure from the vaudeville stage, which strikes just right for the tone of the show.

Without a revival starring the master/playwright himself, as either Marjorie or Frieda, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife feels a little long in the tooth, the parodies too facile, and the line between fun and tastelessness a bit too thin. It might be time for the Allergist to retire.

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