The Tale of the Allergist's Wifeis an entertaining piece of theater. While it begins slowly and a bit tediously, it picks up speed like a locomotive and roars into the last station. Valerie Harper plays the allergist's wife referenced in the title. She is one of the rare actors who understands how to relinquish control of her body in service of the character. Her Marjorie fills the stage, a manic juggernaut who pitches through bouts of neurotic depression and frenetic rage. Her timing is dead on, as is that of the rest of the performers. This results in a feverish performance that sometimes plays as one extended riff.
Marjorie has returned home to her New York apartment after a hospital stay necessitated by injuries sustained while smashing porcelain figures at the Disney store. She claims the repeated dropping of the caricatures was accident, but those around her recognize it as a psychosis. Days pass with Marjorie on the couch, paralyzed by her depression. Her mother Frieda, played by Sondra James, and her husband Ira (Mike Burstyn), the famed allergist, are worried. A ring at the door changes things.
Lee (Jana Robbins), a stranger who reveals herself as not a stranger, intrudes upon Marjorie's isolation. Draped in a life defined by paths less traveled (paths that most of us don't even have access to), she represents to Marjorie everything that Marjorie's life could have been. Now Frieda and Ira are worried about the influence of this mysterious friend.
The play is an engaging map of character dynamics. Frieda loves her daughter, but criticizes her endlessly, attributing all of Marjorie's successes and virtues to anyone other than Marjorie. Ira seems at first to be a devoted husband, but is gradually exposed as a self-important craver of outside validation. He suffers from a god complex, false modesty, and generosity driven by the praise it will give him. Lee functions in parts as mirror and liberator to these three characters. She challenges their roles and expectations of one another. All this is explored through a script that is laugh-out-loud funny.
Though author Charles Busch often relies heavily on literary references (the first half of the play sometimes dilutes itself with cleverness), the greater resonance of the piece burns through. The stage set-up and actor marks also function as a sublime structure for the play. The couches work as sites of cross-examination (much like the clichéd therapist's couch) and the characters move to and from the couches as needed. When Lee first appears in Marjorie's apartment, she reclines on the couch as Marjorie grills her about her life. The two subtly change places, as the interrogator's light is focused on Marjorie. Iterations of this kind of special relationship recur through the play.
Mohammed (Anil Kumar), the fifth character in this play, is the doorman for the building and his character serves the specific purpose of giving information. In the first scene, he acts as a foil to tell us about Marjorie. Later, he tells us about Marjorie and Lee's relationship (or possible lack there of). In the final scene of the play, he tells us about Lee. Kumar is given less to work with than the other actors, but does a fine job of interstices work.
The ending of the play struck me as a conundrum. Though it arrives with a kind of inevitability, the details are unexpected. This no clean morality play; the remains left by Lee's interloping are not neatly reconciled. I left the theater wondering about the moral structures that govern our lives and their relative value and arbitrariness -- and, in many cases, their desperate necessity.
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