Good Life Angst
By Geary Danihy
What do you do when you’re well off, live in a fancy condo on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and have the luxury to fill you days with trips to museums and the theater? Well, you go into the Disney Store and smash six figurines, including a $250 Goofy, then rush home, throw yourself on the couch and refuse to get up while bemoaning your fate. Thus begins Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford. This take on mid-life crisis and Jewish angst, which opened on Broadway in 2000 and received several Best Play nominations, is, if you buy into the crisis, a reasonably funny excursion into the mannered life of a woman who suffers from having too much and thinking too little of herself, acerbated by her immersion in the novels of Herman Hesse and the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, who wrote: “The brain may be regarded as a kind of parasite of the organism, a pensioner, as it were, who dwells with the body.”
The eponymous allergist’s wife is Marjorie Taub (M. J. Hartell), a lady given to pseudo-intellectual didacticism while pondering what to make for dinner. As the play opens, she is found on her couch in a bathrobe, moaning. She will do a lot of moaning throughout the evening. She is urged by her husband, Dr. Ira Taub (Mitchell Prywes) to get up and do something, but existence weighs too heavily on this Upper West Side matron – it’s just too, too, too…unbearable. After all, the chandelier that Mohammed (Matt Austin), the front doorman cum personal handyman, has just installed was supposed to be an artistic statement of the ineffably ethereal but, alas, it is only a light fixture.
Marjorie’s angst is not helped by her mother, Freida (Jody Baker), who uses a walker, hasn’t, so she claims, had a bowel movement in four months (and thus is hooked on suppositories) and finds fault with just about everything Marjorie does -- the son, the son was the brilliant one. Such a career he would have had if his heart hadn’t failed him. Freida also has the irritating habit of discussing the health of her gastro-intestinal system when those around her are eating. Oy!
We’re deeply into Woody Allen-land here, with just a touch of The Golden Girls. Freida kvetches, Marjorie explodes with literary and philosophical allusions and the good doctor, now retired from his practice to run a clinic for the needy and teach, plays referee.
Into this tzimmes enters Lee Green (Rosemary Howard), a lady who rings Madeline’s doorbell while the matron of the condo is contemplating a beautiful view and thinking Rilke-thoughts. Ooops, wrong apartment, but Madeline invites her in anyway (otherwise the play can’t go forward). They chit-chat and then discover that they were childhood friends, but Lee has lived a different life than Madeline -- she has travelled the world, done just about everything and is on a first-name basis with everyone but Yul Brynner. It’s The Lady Who Came to Dinner, for Lee is soon ensconced in the Taub’s apartment and intent on liberating them from their upper-middle-class mores. To say the least, Lee shakes up Madeline’s world, and the shaking-up will continue until the end of the play when Madeline...well, she gets to orate (whether you buy said oration is another question) and thus the family Taub is miraculously made harmonious.
Under the consistent if sometimes misguided direction of Debbie Levin, this melange of stereotypical characters bounce off each other like frantic electrons. Hartell, as Marjorie, enters big and thus has no place to go with her character’s emotions. A physically emotive and effective actor (her eyes often speak volumes), Hartell would have been better served if she had been counseled to bring it down a notch or two at the start of the play and allow Marjorie’s frustrations, and volume, to build. This is not to say that Hartell isn’t, at times, riveting, especially when, in response to Freida’s suggestion that her character volunteer, she delivers a litany of suffering encompassing all Marjorie has done in the service of humankind. It’s a tremendously enjoyable monologue comparable to Daphna’s rants in Bad Jews.
Prywes’ Ira is supposed to be a bit holier than thou, given that he’s rumored to be beloved by all, “a saint,” as Freida describes him (and thus a repressed irritant to Marjorie’s inherent feeling of inferiority). This really doesn’t come across -- he’s certainly a mensch, but the self-important halo worn at a cocked angle is not obvious.
On the believability scale, Howard and Austin fare much better. Howard creates a name-dropping force of nature with Mephistophelian overtones. She is sly, seductive and just a bit mysterious, and Austin, as Mohammed, is, at times, suitably befuddled by the goings-on in the apartment.
And then there is Freida, a character Bayer has a field day with. Bayer has the stereotypical Jewish mother down pat and has a hell of a time on stage bemoaning the state of her character’s bowels while she does a clinic on passive-aggressiveness. Yes, Freida is something of a cardboard character, but Bayer gives that cardboard enough curls and wrinkles to make her thoroughly enjoyable -- the play’s energy goes up several kilowatts whenever the Taub’s doorbell rings and Freida rolls in.
On the whole, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is enjoyable but needs to find a more equitable balance in the actors’ performances. The fireworks, especially those engendered by Marjorie, need to build.
The production runs through May 22. For tickets or more information call 860-350-6863 or going online to theatreworks.us.