`Wife' shines with well-crafted laughs

Harper always `on' as title character

TheaterReview

October 24, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Like its title, Charles Busch's play The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is mildly amusing, and like its carefully detailed set, it's well-crafted.

The Broadway comedy, running through Sunday at the Mechanic Theatre, is the type of feel-good theatrical evening that leaves you satisfied and smiling, without requiring any particularly heavy lifting in terms of intellect.

This is especially appropriate since the title character, an Upper West Side New York housewife named Marjorie Taub, has intellectual aspirations, which she is beginning to fear may be little more than pretensions.

"I'm a fraud. A cultural poseur," she whines to her husband, proving just that in the very next breath when she begins quoting Kafka. (Busch scatters clever touches like this throughout his script.)

Marjorie's belief that she is an intellectual impostor is just one reason she's in a deep depression at the start of the play. She's also mourning the death of her psychiatrist, and she recently went on a rampage, destroying figurines in the Fifth Avenue Disney Store. Mainly, however, she's mired in malaise because she doesn't feel her life has amounted to anything.

When we first see Valerie Harper's Marjorie, her hair is a near fright wig, and she's camped out on her living room sofa wearing a stretched-out cardigan over a faded robe. You'll recognize remnants of Rhoda - the television character Harper played first on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and later on her own spinoff - in some of Harper's gestures and vocal inflections.

But if this is Rhoda, it's a Rhoda who, though married to a nice Jewish doctor, has lost the spark in her life. Indeed, at the start of the play, Marjorie's doorman is installing an enormous chandelier in her living room, but when he flips the switch, she can't stand the bright light.

Initially, Harper - who played this role on Broadway - delivers a performance that seems too studied, but as the play continues, we realize that Marjorie is the type of overly dramatic creature who's always "performing."

As it turns out, however, Marjorie's performance skills have nothing on those of the old childhood friend, Lee, who shows up unexpectedly at her door. Played with unstoppable brio by Jana Robbins, Lee appears to be all that Marjorie worries she is not. Lee has been everywhere, done everything and met everyone (she's an inveterate name-dropper).

Marjorie latches onto this long-lost friend with the desperation of a drowning soul grasping a life preserver. And soon, discontented Mrs. Taub seems to be her old self again. But free-spirited Lee, and not Marjorie, is the one whose credentials are called into question.

Just before intermission, the play takes an intriguing turn, which I won't spoil here. For a minute it seems as if Busch - previously best known for such outlandish drag comedies as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party - is going to venture away from naturalistic drama. But he resists this impulse, and the play quickly returns to a more Neil Simon mode.

As Marjorie's cheerful mensch of a husband, Mike Burstyn also veers toward the overly dramatic, a style that appears to be built into Lynne Meadow's direction. But he and Harper share a good sense of comic timing. Sondra James is pitch perfect as Marjorie's kvetching mother, and Anil Kumar brings dignity and grace to the role of the doorman. And designer Santo Loquasto's set is a sumptuous, book-lined gem.

Getting back to the chandelier that's a central feature of that set: By the final scene Marjorie no longer balks at the intense light it casts on the Taub household. At the risk of stretching symbolism too far, you could say this is indicative of the self-enlightenment she has experienced. It's a pleasant realization that neatly sums up a pleasant play.

Performance

What: The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. tonight-Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $22.50-$60

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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