Though he is likely best recognized as an actor who specializes in portraying mildly campy, but nuanced, female characters in a handful of independent films, Charles Busch has penned a number of plays, especially the off-off-Broadway variety, but with The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, he found success on Broadway.
Set in 2000, Allergist’s Wife, which is Busch’s first foray into mainstream writing, examines the life and environment of Marjorie Taub, a middle-aged Jewish bookworm who leads a financially and intellectually adequate, yet emotionally unsatisfied, existence in New York’s Upper West Side. Though she is well read on the classics (Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha being her favorite) and is an active patron of the arts, it seems that satiating her cultural voracity only leads to her feeling increasingly mediocre– her own book having been turned down by numerous publishers. Ira is her loving doctor husband who is so selfless, he spends so much time doling out free treatment to the city’s needy folks that Marjorie is left feeling largely disregarded. Her mother, Frieda, pops in regularly to fuel Marjorie’s feelings of inadequacy, doting on her son-in-law and reminding her daughter of her failures.
The play, which California Reportory is currently presenting in The Queen Mary’s Royal Theatre, opens shortly after Marjorie (Lea Floden) had lost control in a Disney Store and broken six pricy figurines. (More likely than her being a modern-day Laura from Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is that she histrionically mimicked that Southern character, considering her penchant for all things literary.) Marjorie’s self-pity wallowing is soon interrupted by the fortuitous arrival of her childhood bestie Lee (Valerie Stanford), who regales and inspires Marjorie with her tales of global travel and hobnobbing with the rich and renowned.
The two hit it off fabulously and make plans for Lee to return later for dinner with the family. However, when it seems she’s a no-show, Ira and Frieda question Marjorie’s truthfulness and sanity, wondering whether or not she invented the friend as another cry for attention. What then transpires takes the characters and their relationships with one another on a very wild ride, providing Marjorie with the opportunities and courage to face her existential mid-life crises, particularly those involving her husband and mother.
Floden is charged with giving us a main character who walks the line between being gratingly self-absorbed and genuinely pitiful, especially considering the ways her mother (skillfully embodied by Sarah Underwood Saviano) demeans her. Floden succeeds in creating a woman that we hope will find fulfillment, but we still enjoy seeing her act out. There’s a substance to this lady’s dramatic flair. You get a sense that her need to do something meaningful isn’t just for self-pleasure but to contribute to some greater good. Perhaps that is why, at its root, her marriage, even with its shortcomings, is a loving one; she can relate to and support Ira’s philanthropy, even when it’s at the expense of her own fulfillment.
Likewise, her relationship with her mother is a complicated one, and the play’s second act supplies conflict that allows Frieda to finally express her genuine feelings for her daughter.
Stanford, as Lee, is reminiscent of Patty Hearst as an actress in some of John Waters’s mid-career films. A sense of disingenuousness belies an underlying aristocratic air, and it flies perfectly in the context of Allergist’s Wife, a work of social contradictions.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife will continue in the Royal Theatre aboard The Queen Mary Tuesdays to Saturdays through Dec. 6. All performances begin at 8pm. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $20 for students, military and seniors 55 and older. Parking is $8 for patrons of Cal Rep performances. For more information, call (562) 985-5526 or visit calrep.org .