Sunday, December 7, 2014

Busch loses his balance

The talented cast of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.  Photos: Mark S. Howard

There are almost too many reasons, I'm afraid, why the current Lyric Stage production of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife doesn't quite work; but the bottom line is that the text itself is tricky - and perhaps not the full success everyone pretends it is. Indeed, Charles Busch's tale is told in contrasting keys that are played almost simultaneously; and at the Lyric, director Larry Coen, though blessed with an able cast, hasn't found the right balance between its conflicting tones.

Of course this "straight" play was something of a departure for this celebrated drag performer. In fact, Allergist marked his first foray onto Broadway (where it ran for nearly two years); so it's no surprise his text sometimes strains to reflect an uptown rather than downtown milieu. Its heroine, one Marjorie Taub, is clearly a lady who lunches, but when the curtain rises she is mired in a midlife crisis (her relentless exposure to high culture has only convinced her of her own mediocrity). At the Lyric, she's even ensconced on Central Park West, where she can suffer most picturesquely, that is when she isn't being interrupted by the siren call of the bowels of her crude-but-honest mother (who suffers, I'm afraid, in her GI tract rather than her soul), or the repeated visits of a childhood friend, Lee, who boasts the kind of high-flying lifestyle that Marjorie can only dream of.

Now if you squint a little, you may perceive the lineaments of one of Busch's bawdy parodies moving beneath the surface of these gambits. This time around, the cultural refs come from the likes of Hermann Hesse rather than Beach Blanket Bingo, it's true; but they serve much the same function as they did in those early skits, and Busch's dialogue once more yo-yos from the piously high to the unapologetically low. And then there's Lee, who clearly occupies the same dramaturgical niche as Chicklet did in Psycho Beach Party, or the Mother Superior in The Divine Sister: she's a kind of psychological drag queen, a dazzling female figure who isn't at all what she appears to be - in fact she could be a grifter or a terrorist, or perhaps isn't even "real" at all.

So Mr. Busch has decked out his old act in new clothes for Broadway - he's put his drag in "drag," if you will. And I wouldn't argue that this experiment wasn't worth a try; the trouble is that he doesn't really have the dramatic discipline demanded by his newly adopted genre. In Allergist, Busch is still basically writing linear skits, studded with one-liners that are meant to simply draw laughs, or set up the leading lady for her next star turn; he hasn't yet learned to craft dialogue that generates an independent emotional atmosphere, or suggests interlocking thematic concerns.

Thus while Allergist is self-consciously high in concept, it's relentlessly low in execution. Whenever we start wondering whether Lee isn't like one of those Hermann Hesse doppelgängers whose home address is the collective unconscious, Mom breaks wind, or brays a Borscht-belt wisecrack. And to be fair, some of these lines did crack me up. But while such antics served Busch well when he was sending up other people's pretensions, here he mostly winds up undercutting his own.

Marina Re and Caroline Lawton.
And director Coen and the talented Lyric cast simply haven't figured out a way to resolve these conflicting impulses. To be honest, my guess is that no one could, not really; I imagine the Broadway version coasted on star power, and the transgressive sexual edge that Busch eventually gives the proceedings (Lee is soon suggesting to her hosts a ménage à trois).

But that kind of "shock" counts for less these days, and as if to compensate, Coen lets Ellen Colton soft-shoe halfway to the Catskills as Marjorie's mom; meanwhile the appealing Marina Re gropes for a through-line for Marjorie herself, and Joel Colodner supplies a genial presence but little more as husband Ira, the eponymous allergist.

Still, the show marks the return of Caroline Lawton (at left) to the Lyric after an extended absence, and her take on Lee is something to see. Tossing her auburn locks and sauntering around in buccaneer boots as if she owned not only Marjorie's place but her psyche as well, Lawton is nearly a perfect sexual sphinx, which is just what Lee should be. Alas, Coen doesn't conjure much mystery around her, more's the pity, nor does he suggest any of the psychological allergens that might spark Marjorie and Ira's eventual rejection of this particular invader.

But again, I can't say the playwright is much help in this regard; indeed, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife becomes choppiest (and even grows politically puzzling) just when it should be coming together most cogently. So in a way, Coen's strategy proves a canny one - the laughs see him through, at least superficially. Busch recently updated the many references in the play to keep it topical; too bad he couldn't devise a unifying vision for it at the same time.


  1. I saw this on Broadway in '01 and thought it was just awful. Busch trying to be Neil Simon, and failing. Though Linda Lavin was a case study in how to keep the audience simultaneously half-asleep and entertained... a nasal monotonous drone until she got to a laugh line, which she would belt to the rafters, giving the audience their cue to laugh, applaud, then go back to sleep. I can't fathom how this ran for two years.

  2. I too found myself musing, btw, on Simon's relative sophistication.