While I find the work of Charles Busch, when he is in camp drag mode and/or camp genre parody mode, to be nearly always exhausting rather than exhilarating (to be fair, I must add that mine is not a majority opinion), I likewise tend to feel quite different about his—no pun intended—straight comedies; almost as if they're the product of another writer. And I find myself looking forward to them.
And to a certain degree, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, currently at Primary Stages, did not disappoint me. It’s populated by eccentric and interesting characters, it has a high regard for its audience’s hipness, it has heart and it’s very funny.
So what’s to complain?
Well, it’s just not much of a play, really—a lot is loaded onto a slender premise. Our main character, the titular Olive (Marcia Jean Kurtz) an elderly actress, thinks she sees a ghost in her mirror (actually in the reflection of the mirror on the opposite wall). It’s something private, that she’d like to keep to herself—and you’d think it would be easy, what with her being such a relentless bitch (truly)—but her strangely devoted friend Wendy (Julie Halston) proves receptive to the possibility that the ghost is not imaginary; as do Olive's next door neighbors, a gay couple about whose cooking smells she has complained to the management. Said neighbors being children’s book author Robert (David Garrison), a calm, rational soul; and his partner-illustrator Trey (Dan Butler) who is of the snipey variety. They visit her to see if there’s a way to come to a rapprochement, and wind up becoming regular visitors—as does teddy-bearish senior citizen Sylvan (Richard Masur), father of the unseen landlady to whom Olive originally complained. Very quickly, because of their interest in this possible poltergeist, Olive finds herself transformed from a one-friend loner to the hostess of a Passover seder that all attend.
Though what I encapsulize here may sound like a comedy about a misanthrope who finds her empathy for others via her guests’ new, eye-opening perspectives, be not misled: Olive remains a bitch, a self-sabotaging bitch at that. Whatever else is going on, it often seems the primary thrust of the play is Mr. Busch’s desire to discover how much abuse Olive’s new companions can take before they abandon leniency altogether—and perhaps all together. It’s the play’s thesis that while they would never initially have stuck around if not for the ghost, they’re not exactly staying around for the ghost either; rather, it’s suggested that the ghost has brought them together to experience new relationships whether they want to or not.
All of which sounds richer than what’s actually delivered. But it is delivered with a comic precision that recalls Neil Simon in his most potent laff-machine mode, by a cast of comedy masters, under direction by Mark Brokaw (which recalls Simon compatriots such as Mike Nichols and Gene Saks).
Ah, what the hell. You can’t have everything…
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