Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 14,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Paper Mill Review: `Allergist’s Wife’

A critic often finds himself obliged to re-review the same play,

especially in the case of the classics, over and over again. Classics

of dramatic literature, by their very nature, offer their own rewards;

however, popular contemporary plays, especially those that have the

cache of being labeled "hits," pose a different problem. Sometimes we

wonder if it’s the same play. Point in case: Neil Simon’s comedy "The

Dinner Party" was almost unbearable on Broadway, despite its big-name

cast. Paper Mill Playhouse staged it the following season with actors

who knew how to bring the awkward script to life and thereby made it

pleasurable.

Now Paper Mill is presenting Charles Busch’s "The Tale of the

Allergist’s Wife," a recent Broadway success that was buoyed

considerably by the sparkling, larger-than-life performances of Linda

Lavin, Michele Lee, Tony Roberts, and Shirl Bernheim. The play at

Paper Mill is the same, but the cast is not (except for Bernheim who

is playing the role she created on Broadway). And suddenly the play is

no longer funny. So what happened?

A broad comedy with psychological overtones, "The Tale of the

Allergist’s Wife" would appear to have all the same ingredients at the

Paper Mill that previously made audiences collapse with laughter on

Broadway, even if these same ingredients don’t always mix well. The

audience at the Paper Mill performance I attended didn’t appear to

laugh much, and at intermission there was the conspicuous departure of

patrons already wearing their coats.

What happened? You can see that leading lady Robin Strasser is trying

hard, but is simply not up to the challenge. She rants and raves,

makes lots of gestures, and moves around the stage the way the

director Carl Andress has (presumably) instructed her to.

Notwithstanding the fact that the comedy has an amusing premise, too

much of the humor is derived from endless kvetching, something that

the leading character and her mother do most adeptly. This is not to

imply that Strasser, as the Upper West Side Jewish matron Marjorie

Taub, doesn’t kvetch with the prescribed intent to annoy. She’s a

middle-aged, unfulfilled New School habitue and would-be New Age

existential author.

Unfortunately, Strasser, who has achieved her greatest success over

the past 30 years playing leading roles in such daytime TV soaps as

"One Life to Live," "Another World," and "All My Children," doesn’t

have the comic vitality or vocal timbre to propel Marjorie’s

angst-driven nature. There is simply no kick watching her try to lift

herself out of her chronic melancholy. There is no sense of perverse

pleasure watching her wallow in self-pity, wrestle with the philosophy

of Hermann Hesse, and vent over the ugliness of the crystal chandelier

that the doorman (Ariel Shafir) has just hung in her $2.3 million

co-op on Central Park West.

Marjorie may be at her lowest when the doorbell rings, but her

condition is suddenly and miraculously turned around the day a chic

and ingratiating woman arrives at her apartment. Lee Green (played by

Meg Foster who starred as Cagney in the hit TV series "Cagney and

Lacey"), is the former Lillian Greenblat, a friend from childhood whom

she hasn’t since in many years. Lee, it seems, has become a

world-traipsing woman of many achievements, most of themderived from

her hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Foster looks suitably

beguiling in costume designer Miguel Angel Huidor’s over-the-top

fashions.

Lee luxuriates in name-dropping. In short order we learn that she went

to China with the Nixons, had an affair with Gunther Grass, dinner

with Henry Kissinger and Princess Diana, and shared a can of soup with

Andy Warhol. Revived by the duplicitous Lee, Marjorie invites her

unexpected guest to stay a while.

Meanwhile Marjorie’s self-absorbed, foul-mouthed mother Frieda (Shirl

Bernheim), who is morbidly preoccupied with the function of her own

bowels, in untroubled by Marjorie’s existential angst.

In Act II, when Lee pursues a course of crafty manipulation and sexual

seduction that takes the easily bamboozled Marjorie, Ira, and Frieda

by surprise, things become more heavy-handed and even a bit

preposterous. Marjorie’s husband Ira, an easy-going retired doctor,

amusingly played by Lenny Wolpe, is curiously unconcerned with his

wife’s off-the-wall behaviour. Paper Mill audiences will remember

Wolpe as Herbie opposite Betty Buckley in "Gypsy."

To the extent that mid-life Marjorie is a dizzyingly complex

character, as intellectually needy as she is emotionally restless, the

comedy has a lot to say, but it relies too much on bathroom humor.

When your ears have had their fill of jokes about the bowels, let your

eyes take in Michael Anania’s awesome living room setting with its

stunning panoramic backdrop view of Central Park.

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Paper Mill,

Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org.

Show runs to February 8. $30 to $67.


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