The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife — Bucks County Playhouse
Thinking Marjorie Taub, the title character of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, is having a major breakdown, her husband and mother decide to hold an intervention and confront Marjorie with their understanding of the truth. Playing this scene at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse, Marsha Mason shows why she was a darling of movie audiences in the 1970s and ’80s. Taking in what her loved ones are saying and accepting its plausibility, Mason, as Marjorie, goes through a series of gestures and expressions that convey denial, then consideration, then revelation, then resignation, and finally, collapse and worry as she realizes she may be sicker than she thought she was, especially since this new evidence of madness follows an earlier (offstage) meltdown in a Disney store.
Mason’s transformation takes place in a matter of 30 seconds, but the actress is so precise as she goes through her stages of discovery that you know exactly what Marjorie is comprehending and how it affects her. Mason is such an artist, she can show you the grim, pathetic side of Marjorie’s descent to extreme mental illness while keeping the moment decidedly comic, hilarious in fact. Best of all, this comic turn never seems anything less than natural. Mason goes through her various paroxysms and moments of enlightenment while keeping Marjorie a woman you believe is having this all-too-human experience.
The sequence I describe is only one example of the myriad things Mason does to keep her character and Charles Busch’s funny and knowing play vibrant and worthy of audience attention and concern.
Mason is not alone in her command of stagecraft. Everyone in director Boyd Gaines’s cast has at least one moment to shine and do it in a way that illustrates both acting and human life. David Garrison, as the allergist, does a little dance as he thinks about an extraordinary evening he has had. Marilu Henner, as Marjorie’s childhood friend, restored to her after a 40-year absence, seduces the Taubs into experimenting in ways they may have dreamed of but never considered trying. Ryan Shams, as the doorman in the Taubs’ Riverside Drive apartment building, is the soul of innocence as he keeps a couple of crucial secrets. Emily Jon Mitchell, as Marjorie’s mother, is simply a miracle.
Mitchell came to The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife at the last possible moment, stepping in after a few hours of hectic rehearsal to replace the originally cast Lynn Cohen who came down with viral laryngitis just before the first preview curtain was about to be raised.
To see Mitchell’s performance, you would never know she wasn’t part of Gaines’s cast from the beginning. Yes, she carried a script on stage, but she seldom referred to it. She must have had at least 80 percent of her lines committed to memory. More importantly, she delivered those lines with knowing expression and comic flair. Mitchell did not miss any of the inherent laughs Busch so generously provides for her character. You felt as if you weren’t watching an actress but seeing Frieda Tuchman, Mitchell’s character, in the flesh.
The Bucks County production is a grand success and a fitting end to season that restores the venerable Playhouse to its former status as a summer stock powerhouse. The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is the theater’s best overall 2013 production, but it can match its season with any production house.
Busch not only gave Frieda wonderful lines, many of them having to do with her bowel problems. He peppered his play with fast, funny dialogue, and the masterful cast at Bucks County Playhouse makes his lines pay.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is about one woman’s malaise. Marjorie Taub wants to be a salon intellectual. More than that, she wants to be noted widely in Manhattan and abroad for her thoughtfulness and perspicacity.
Marjorie plays her role well. She reads and quotes from major philosophers and authors. She goes to museums and lectures with the avid abandon of one who cannot quench her thirst for knowledge. She relishes seeing five-hour BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) productions of Euripides’s Oresteia performed by an Irish company in Gaelic. Just hearing the name Hermann Hesse can put her into rapture. And every time she hears a familiar three-bang knock on her apartment door, she hopes instead of her mother to find Simone de Beauvoir.
The problem is Marjorie gets no recognition for her devotion to arts and letters. She is a Manhattan woman who does not and has never worked and who spouts most of her erudite ideas to her husband, who is more interested in dispensing free medical help to people who can’t afford to consult with him at his practice, or her Iraqi doorman, Mohammed, who himself has a taste for Nadine Gordimer and the revered Hesse. Marjorie is particularly tickled when Mohammed takes a liking to her all-time favorite, Siddhartha.
Marjorie is increasingly frustrated about not being able to take her place at a modern-day Algonquin round table. On the surface, she is the picture of normality. She is even able to make fun of what could be considered her pretensions and is usually good-tempered and witty. With everyone, that is, except her mother, with whom she plays a mutual tug of war of accusation and affection.
Normality strains a little at that Disney store. And remember, Marjorie’s husband, Ira, and her mother, have cause to be alarmed to the point of deep worry at one point.
Marjorie’s life takes a dramatic turn when one day, she answers the door and finds neither her mother nor Simone de Beauvoir, but a woman who believes she has rung the Taubs’ bell by mistake. A little byplay ensues, and both women realize they are childhood friends who have fond and vivid memories of their relationship. Lee Green, nee Lillian Greenblatt, has lived most of Marjorie’s dreams. She’s even slept with Gunter Grass, in literary terms a worthy substitute for Hesse! Marjorie and Lee resume their friendship, and Marjorie is in West Side Manhattan heaven.
Of course, more develops, but I have to stop because revealing more plot will take away from a visitor’s enjoyment of Busch’s play, and I highly recommend you see The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife while it’s camped in New Hope through Sunday, September 1.
The play is not the only reason. As I said earlier, you want to see this cast, one that individually and as an ensemble, makes the most of the material it is given.
I especially appreciate the way the actors go through everyday paces without the usual stage shortcuts or substitutions.
When Marjorie and Lee are preparing a meal, Mason and Henner are in the kitchen chopping vegetables and showing each of them knows her way around a knife, some carrots, and some chives. There’s no fuss in the scene. It shows two competent women cooking as, of course, they deliver lines and keep the plot moving.
Garrison, whose voice retains the tenor and rhythm of Groucho Marx, who he played 30 years ago in his breakthrough role in Days in Hollywood/Nights in the Ukraine, shows no sign of giving performance. He is a man going through his life and realizing his dedication to his profession may have had an effect on his wife, one that drove her to books and lectures because he is unavailable. Garrison’s character, Ira, has built a reputation beyond his practice. He does radio interviews about health and his work with the homeless. Nevertheless, Garrison, playing Ira, never takes what would look like due credit. He’s just a simple, modest man pitching in to do what he thinks is right. Garrison’s Ira would be at home in any New York apartment, and he handles a computer with the same skill Mason and Henner handle their chopping knives. He also matched his castmates in giving sharp, dead-on line delivery.
Marilu Henner has the sparkplug part, and she plays it with wit and energy. Lee exudes the love of life, and Henner embodies it. Even when Lee drops names, Henner mentions them conversationally, as part of an anecdote or response. She doesn’t push the line as if she is showing off (although that’s the way Marjorie’s mother takes it). Lee has a fantastic, almost unbelievable life, and though it’s hard to accept everything she says as gospel, Henner makes the impression that Lee is legitimate and capable of doing all she talks about.
Emily Jon Mitchell could give Estelle Getty a run for her money as a carping, but loving, mother, Jewish in this case. She and Marjorie may bicker, but let someone else say something about either, and the other mounts a quick and solid defense.
Ryan Shams is all shy charm as Mohammed. Like a good employee, he knows his place and shows deference to the Taubs, Frieda, and Lee. But when he has something to say, he does not hold back.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife provides a great comic look at Manhattan denizens on the go. Busch’s characters may be comic, but they embody the essence of the well-heeled New Yorker who has a brushing acquaintance with Kirkegaard, or Hesse, or Euripides, and who dutifully makes trips to MOMA, BAM, and the Roundabout Theatre.
The play holds our attention and entertains throughout. Its one flaw, a bit jarring but necessarily implausible, is the ending. Busch takes a situation to an impasse and takes an expedient way out of it instead of crafting a solution with the skill he brings to the rest of the writing.
Quel domage! It’s a minor point in the long run, one that does, however, need to be noted.