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
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
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
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.
Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org.
Show runs to February 8. $30 to $67.
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