Something to Sneeze At

Theatre Three blows a big one with Tale of the Allergist's Wife; RTC rolls on Secrets

As midlife crises go, Marjorie Taub's is a monster. In agony over the death of her therapist, Marjorie, the main character in Charles Busch's comedy The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, is first seen by the audience at Theatre Three deep in menopausal malaise, wailing and whimpering like a wounded animal, hitting every note on the hormonal scale as she lies curled in a lump on the living room sofa.

That living room sits in what is supposed to be an elegant high-rise on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Marjorie's husband, Ira, is a doctor, retired and devoted to free treatments for the homeless and allergic, even as he ignores his own wife's obvious misery. He has just rescued her from an embarrassing public breakdown at a Disney store. "Good news," he says dispassionately, "they're not going to press charges."

Poor Marjorie, so lonely she invites the doorman up for simple conversation. Except no conversation with this woman is simple. Every sentence Marjorie utters is laced with high-culture references to German authors, philosophers, poets or the modern intellectuals she's seen lecturing at the 92nd Street Y. She's also fond of quoting from her own unfinished epic novel, for which, she says, "I invented an entirely new form of punctuation." Friendless, with grown children far outside her area code, she's forced to live almost entirely in her own head.

The disappointments pile up, but it's not all their fault: from left, Connie Coit, Pam Dougherty, Ted Wold and Ada Lynn.
Andy Hanson
The disappointments pile up, but it's not all their fault: from left, Connie Coit, Pam Dougherty, Ted Wold and Ada Lynn.

In real life, maintaining a bond with a needy soul like Marjorie would be a chore. She's an energy vampire, a grasping poseur. If her name came up on caller ID, few of us would pick up the phone, afraid of another two-hour poor-me marathon if we dared. But Charles Busch, the cheeky playwright best known as creator of campy, cross-dressing comedies such as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Shanghai Moon, works his magic with Marjorie. He makes her witty and sad, nervous but nice, an estrogen-starved Rhoda Morgenstern. When her aged mother, Frieda, interrupts another meal with a menu of her bowel functions, we want to hug Marjorie for shutting her up. And when her old friend Lee appears in the Taubs' apartment and rekindles their childhood mischief, we're glad Marjorie's found a reason to get dressed and get out of the house again--even if Zelig-like Lee might be just a figment of an overworked imagination. As if channeling Wendy Wasserstein, Busch turns morbid Marjorie into an uncommon woman, a simpatico sister Rosensweig who deserves attention and love.

If only the production at Theatre Three, directed by Bruce R. Coleman, were so kind to this character. Here Marjorie, played by Pam Dougherty, is more than six degrees separated from the woman she ought to be. Instead of Zabar's-shopping intellectual, Dougherty plays her as shiksa shlub. The actress lacks the designer-label elegance the role calls for, and in too many scenes she shleps across the stage like a disgusted diner waitress sick of slinging hash. She actually makes her character dumber than the playwright intends by mispronouncing Hermann Hesse (Marjorie's favorite author, frequently referenced throughout the play) and the name of his novel Siddhartha. (She and the other actors also mangle Thomas Mann, bourgeois, ephemera, mishigas, chutzpahand Simon Wiesenthal.) In her big speeches, Dougherty becomes Dixie Carter, the hip-swinging high-dudgeoness of Designing Women. Not the right image for Marjorie.

The allergist is miscast, too. Ted Wold sounds too twangy to be credible as a New York doctor and is decades too green to play a retiree. It wasn't that long ago that Wold played Dougherty's son in WaterTower's production of Spitfire Grill. Wold is a good actor, but this role is outside his métier.

As Marjorie's mother, Frieda, the selfish, fecal-minded granny who toddles in to shout the F-word now and then, Ada Lynn isn't sure enough of her lines to keep up with the play's nimble timing. Elfin Connie Coit, a Theatre Three stalwart, is as wrong for the role of Lee as wispy Blythe Danner was as the mythic Jewish mother in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs.

The disappointments pile up--forgot to mention that a major piece of the set, a gigantic chandelier, looks like dollar-store ashtrays and Mardi Gras beads glued together and hung from the rafters. Thoughts drift to which theater could have done the Allergist's Wife a real mitzvah by giving it a better production. This is a big play, a real "get" that could just as well have been snapped up by Dallas Theater Center, WaterTower or Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, all of whom now compete to lock up rights to stage local premieres of new plays years in advance of actually producing them. Allergist's Wife is that rarest of fresh American works for the stage, a comedy focused on three strong women characters, all over 40. It earned three Tony nominations in 2001, including best new play (the winner was Proofby David Auburn), and got raves from the New York critics. OK, so the ending is weak (too much talk of terrorist fronts and cultural masturbation). But for the right actress, Marjorie Taub is the role of a lifetime, boasting as many lines and shifts of temperament as King Lear or Medea but with loads more colonoscopy jokes.

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