When, in her pre-show remarks, New Jewish Theatre artistic director Kathleen Sitzer reminded viewers that The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is the final show to be staged in the tiny black-box theater that has been that company's home for the past decade, the audience cheered. I don't know why. I may be a majority of one, but to me this playing space will be missed. Its stark intimacy has demanded that actors achieve subtle nuances akin to film acting — and, simultaneously, allowed them to do so. Christopher Limber in Hearts, Kevin Beyer in Broken Glass, Michelle Hand in From Door to Door, Kari Ely, Kat Singleton and Margeau Baue Steinau in Kindertransport — these are a few of the memorable performances that grew out of this space.
For its swan song, New Jewish has chosen to leave 'em laughing. There are guffaws galore in Charles Busch's mischievous prank about the foolishness of life on the status-fixated Upper West Side of Manhattan. Indeed, there are so many laughs here that when at evening's end you leave the theater feeling empty, you have to chalk it up to one of two things: Either the script is a laugh-athon that runs out of gas fifteen minutes too soon, or the play needs to be more character-driven than this production directed by Edward Coffield wants to acknowledge — because when the laughs stop, the characters aren't there to assume the load.
Our heroine, Marjorie Taub (Penney Kols), suffers from a kind of culture shock induced by too much Franz Kafka and a surfeit of Herman Hesse. Marjorie is so pretentious, she doesn't have problems; she has "conundrums." Marjorie knows she's smothering from information overload (most of which she doesn't comprehend), but her rawhide-tough mother (Donna Weinsting) thinks her daughter is merely bored. Husband Ira (Bobby Miller), a prominent allergist whose clients include the celebrated likes of Marlo Thomas, is so self-absorbed that he can only ponder his own self-exaltation.
Enter Lee Green (Lavonne Byers), a childhood friend whom Marjorie has not seen for decades. Lee is everything Marjorie had hoped to become but is not: stylish, worldly, at ease with her sexuality. These two are so ideally matched in temperament and ambition, they almost could be twins. (Note how, in their first scene together, they even seem to be wearing the same eyeglass frames.) Lee and Marjorie start going to foreign movies and art galleries together. There's just one hitch: Nobody sees Lee except Marjorie. Does she even exist?
So begins a series of plot twists, none of which is particularly well developed. Busch is content to leap from laugh to laugh, and this cast serves him well. Kols has an endearing quality, and Miller is adept with a dry double take. Weinsting sits in a stuffed chair, looking down her nose over the curve of her cane handle, waiting to toss out rejoinders about bowel movements with the constancy of baseballs in a batting cage. Byers smartly sways about the stage as if there's a hidden cadence to her character. From her first entrance until her final exit, her performance is so assured that one might almost wonder if the play's title is The Tale of the Allergist's Wife's Alter Ego.
It's in the final fifteen minutes, while the narrative keeps seeking a way out of the corner into which it has boxed itself, that you have time think back over what you've just witnessed. That's when you realize that Busch has spent the evening sneering at every character onstage. (OK, maybe not the Iraqi doorman, sympathetically played by Adam Flores.) Busch not only has contempt for the characters he's satirizing, but his disdain seems to extend to the audience as well. Perhaps I'm reacting out of defense, but it seems to me that — although there is much to laugh at here — there's not a whole lot to like.