Square One Theatre Company Serves Up “Olive and the Bitter Herbs”
By Cindy Cardozo
Square One Theatre Company in Stratford rounds out its 24th season with Olive and the Bitter Herbs, a comedy by Tony Award nominee Charles Busch. Directed by Square One's Artistic Director, Tom Holehan, this play offers up a unique look at connections and coincidences, and reminds us that it is never too late for second chances.
Olive Fisher is a cantankerous aging actress, who's isolated existence thrives on kvetching about her neighbors, the New York co-op that she lives in as the sole remaining renter, and just about everything and everyone who crosses her path. Her biggest claim to fame was a sausage commercial in the 1980's. But Olive has a secret. A mysterious spectral visitor that only she can see appears in her mirror. She is not frightened by her ghost, but seems comforted by his presence.
Olive's friend and self-appointed caretaker, Wendy, tries to get Olive to take up hobbies, get out a little, and make peace with the new neighbors, Robert and Trey, a gay couple who live next door. Despite Olive's protestations about the stinky cheese smell permeating her walls from the couple's apartment, Wendy invites them over. The zingers fly between the neighbors, with Wendy acting as the mousy, ineffective mediator, until Olive lets her secret slip. Suddenly Olive is no longer just the irritating, cranky old neighbor to her guests; she is the "Gimme the Sausage" lady with the ghost living in her apartment.
This circle of frenemies soon gets a fifth wheel when they are joined by Sylvan, the father of the co-op president, who comes to Olive's apartment to apologize on his daughter's behalf for some words spoken in anger during their last blowout. Sylvan has a convoluted back-story involving multiple marriages to feisty women, a past life in South America, and an attraction to bad-tempered strong women. At this point in his narrative, I almost wanted to say, "cue the mood music" and sure enough Sylvan spends the rest of the play flirting with Olive.
Charles Busch has infused the interactions between characters with zingy one-liners and pointed barbs. The funniest exchanges come during a Passover Seder that Trey helped organize in Olive's apartment, despite the fact that Olive is not particularly devout and has not had a Passover dinner in years. As each member of the group attempts to take part in the Passover ritual, their bickering personalities and verbal sparring turn what is supposed to be a solemn and symbolic meal into a humorous holiday horror story. Added to the mix is the apartment ghost who once again becomes a catalyst for conversation and speculation as each of the guests in turn find out who that specter is and how they are all connected to him.
The cast is suitably chosen for their parts. Alice McMahon plays Olive with just the right amount of irascibility to convince us that she is a curmudgeonly old woman who is not quite beyond redemption. Michele Duncan, as Wendy, is a revelation in her role as the caretaker who has some underlying motivations that might not be so noble lurking just beneath her cheery disposition. I especially loved her slightly hysterical exit scene as she bids goodbye to Olive in the second act.
Jim Buffone and Barry Hatrick are perfectly suited to each other as Trey and Robert. I not only found their characters fascinating as individuals, but together they were a believable and engaging couple. And finally, Al Kulcsar was the perfect Sylvan. He plays Olive's emotional opposite to perfection, with his calm voice and soothing ways. I found myself actually rooting for him to win over Olive's combative nature and found his final attempt to reach her both endearing and adorable.
At times it seems like there is too much going on in this show. The ghost story, the love story, the neighbors' strained relationship, Wendy's attempts at getting her life together, and Olive's potential comeback performance are all mashed together in one little apartment. However, the skillful direction of Tom Holehan causes the many subplots to coalesce into one seamless production. He skillfully directs the actors through the fast-paced comedic banter, verbal sparring, intertwining storylines and endless exposition to an ultimately satisfying ending.
Olive and the Bitter Herbs runs through May 31st at Square One Theatre, 2422 Main Street, Stratford. Call 203-375-8778 or visit Square One Theatre Company for tickets.