As the poet Horace observed, parturient mountains can give birth to a ridiculous mouse. More rarely, the reverse occurs. This is not quite the case of Charles Busch’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, yet who would have expected from a campy downtown playwright a nicely structured, intelligently funny, satirically relevant uptown comedy? It has only two defects. The minor one is that Rilke is not buried in Germany, as here averred, but in Switzerland; the major one, that Busch could not think of a good ending.
The retired but still overactive allergist Dr. Ira Taub is married to Marjorie, an immobilized nervous wreck since the death of her therapist. To be sure, her troubles run deep. She has read all the right books, attended every conceivable concert, lecture, and exhibition, and is an expert on German literature and, especially, Hermann Hesse, whose Siddhartha is her favorite. But this has only marginalized Marjorie; a failed novelist, she cannot gain entry into the artistic and intellectual life she craves. She is not helped by Ira, who, though devoted, has little time for her or Hesse; still less by her kvetching Jewish mother, Frieda, preoccupied with her bowel movements and indifferent to her daughter’s inertia. Not to mention that, in the Bronx River Road days, Frieda always favored her other children.
So now the elegantly furnished (by Santo Loquasto) Upper West Side apartment of the Taubs is a battleground: Marjorie, hysterically snapping at Ira and Frieda, cannot find peace even in her ability to quote Kafka and Cocteau. When her mother is at the door, she wishes it were Simone de Beauvoir. Well, one fine day it almost is. In comes Lee Green, ostensibly having rung the wrong bell. This fabulously dressed (by Ann Roth), youngish woman is in fact Lillian Greenblatt, a long-ago neighbor, whose many lives have included bonding in the Village with Kerouac, Baldwin, and Andy; sleeping with Günter Grass (how much closer to German literature can you get?); working for Chanel in Paris; acting in a Fassbinder movie; sitting at dinner between Kissinger and Princess Di; and reading all of Hesse, including Magister Ludi.
This last made me suspicious: I doubt if anybody, Hesse included, ever finished reading Magister Ludi. And, sure enough, Lee is not quite what she seems to be. More of this witty, civilized play I cannot reveal, except that it needs a better ending. But not to despair: “Old I may be,” says Hesse’s Govinda to Siddhartha, “but I shall never stop seeking.”
If you seek an ideal cast, look no further. Linda Lavin, for whom the admiring Busch wrote Marjorie as, he says, a kind of King Lear, is that and more: Lady Macbeth, Willy Loman, Lydia Languish, and, better yet, herself at her dizzying best. As the befuddled Ira, Tony Roberts is – well, I’ll say it – adorable. As the mother and mother-in-law from Gehenna, Shirl Bernheim is it, from aleph to omega. As Lee, Michele Lee is in every way as perfect as her last name. And as Mohammed the doorman, Anil Kumar is what I’ve always longed for: No doorman of mine has ever been able to discuss Nadine Gordimer with me.
Having already praised Santo Loquasto and Ann Roth, let me add merely that Christopher Akerlind’s lighting supplies delicious touches – note just what the chandelier does during scene changes. And Lynne Meadow has directed with the comic know-how of one who has digested everything from Demian to Damn Yankees. As for Charles Busch, he could have supplied generations of similarly named politicians with a full complement of humor.