I’m going to let you in on a secret: I want each show I see to be a winner. I love it when theater is fantastic, and I am disappointed or crestfallen when I see something that falls short. I want nothing more than to review a show and write, “Hey. This is good. Get yourself some tickets right now or you’re going to regret it.”
Which brings us to Bucks County Playhouse’s production of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” playing now through Sunday, September 1 — Hey. This is good. Get yourself some tickets right now or you’re going to regret it.
This is one of those rare productions where everything is in harmony; the script by Charles Busch (updated and modernized from its 2000 premiere) sparkles like a multifaceted gem, an uproarious, gut-busting comedy from one angle and a poignant look at the nature of relationships and trust from another. Boyd Gaines’ direction is flawless, tempered, and scored as befitting a master of his craft. And this five-person cast — spectacularly led by Marsha Mason and Marilu Henner — is simply wonderful. Simply put, you are not going to find a more entertaining or better-presented show anywhere else this summer.
Charles Busch is known for his catalog of campy scripts, which often feature the author, in drag, in the lead; with this script, he achieved mainstream success in 2000 with a Broadway run of 777 performances. Now, from here on out, I am going to tread a little lightly, as many of the laughs come from deftly crafted surprises. Marjorie Taub (Mason) is a well-heeled Upper West Side wife of a semi-retired and perpetually busy doctor and has a gorgeous Riverside Drive apartment, a great deal of time on her hands, and a sinking feeling that, somehow, she has missed her purpose in life. She surrounds herself with works of titanic intellectualism, stuck in a poetic longing for adventures unlived.
And then, in comes Lee (Henner), Marjorie’s childhood friend who moved away 40 years previously and now is back in her life via an act of spooky coincidence. Suddenly, Marjorie’s depression lifts — which causes her husband, Ira (David Garrison), and mother (Emily Jon Mitchell) to express concern at the tectonic personality shift. And then there are two bits of intrigue that turn the whole thing on its head. I am not going to spoil anything here because it is delicious enough for you to experience on your own.
This cast is a marvel. Mason is at the height of her powers here, full of charisma and conveying a sense of midlife crisis that’s both alarming and hilarious. She displays every bit of the talent and energy that earned her four Academy Award nominations, including one for her performance in “The Goodbye Girl” (and if you have not seen it, rent it as soon as you are finished seeing this show). Henner is gorgeous and fierce in a reprisal of the role she played on Broadway: a mix between Auntie Mame and a perfectly groomed jungle cat. She is intensely lovable and watchable, but always priming you for the moment when the claws might just come out.
As Marjorie’s mother, Frieda, Emily Jon Mitchell is perhaps the show-stealer of the evening, which is quite a task when you consider the competition. A sly septuagenarian who has recently discovered her Judaism, Mitchell’s Frieda represents all the humor and terror present in the fully realized doting Jewish mother. She makes an art form out of outlandish and overbearing love and an omnipresent concern about digestion (there’s a lot of conversation about bowel health in this show, come to think of it). All of this is made even more impressive by the fact that Mitchell is a last minute replacement — at the performance attended, she was less than 48 hours into the role. You’d never be able to tell, though. It’s an incredible performance.
The men are just as good. As Ira, the titular allergist, David Garrison is at first glance the standard workaholic wonder-husband of modern literature — kind, compassionate, obsessed with his work, and not around enough to notice his wife’s ennui. As that archetype unravels a bit, we are treated to some joyous physical comedy and perfect timing from Garrison. Rounding out the cast is Ryan Shams as Mohammed, the doorman, in a role that seems written to provide exposition and a sounding board for the other characters. Shams makes it his own, however, and his reactions are believable and adorable.
All of this remarkable talent is packaged in Wilson Chin’s gorgeous set, an apartment that ideally fits the action and makes you want to just move in. This is a production that will have you and your friends laughing loudly and freely — and debating some of the big twists and turns, and what they mean, as equally loudly and freely for weeks to come.
It is everything you want a great night of theater to be — fun, sparkling, thought-provoking, and somehow light and deep all at once. “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” is as good as it gets.
— Jonathan Elliott
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Through Sunday, September 1. $29 to $57.50. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.