Tale of the Allergist's Wife

Paper Mill: The State Theater of NJ

Millburn, NJ - January 2004

Review by John Kenrick

In the midst of the coldest weather the Northeast has seen in a decade, nothing warms the heart like a good laugh, and there are laughs aplenty in Paper Mill's handsome new production of Charles Busch's Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Busch built his reputation writing cutting edge off-Broadway spoofs that showcased his brilliant drag performances, so it was a surprise to many when he cooked-up this mainstream comedy several season ago. It wowed the critics, moved to Broadway, racked up a slew of Tony nominations and ran for well over 700 performances.

The play centers on Marjorie, a middle aged intellectual New Yorker who goes into an emotional tailspin after her beloved psychiatrist dies. Her husband Ira, a prominent allergist, offers sympathy but little in the way of effective help. Her aging mother Frieda offers unwanted advice and graphic descriptions of various digestive disorders. Marjorie's childhood friend Lee unexpectedly appears, re-sparking Marjorie's interest in life. Lee is such an unbelievable explosion of talent and personality that Marjorie herself wonders if this woman is just a creation of her unstable mind. Before Lee is done, she moves in and shakes up the entire family, challenging perceptions, redefining relationships, and wrapping herself in more than a few layers of mystery.

Instead of re-creating the Broadway staging, Paper Mill has opted for a new approach. Director Carl Andress, who has worked with Busch on several projects over the years, focuses on the abstract concepts at work in this script. Resident set designer Michael Anania outdoes himself by wrapping an eye-popping Upper West Side apartment (people I know would kill for this place) in a stylized Manhattan skyline, offering an ever-visible reminder that these characters could only exist in New York. Miguel Angel Huidor's costumes are exactly right, and F. Mitchell Dana lights every scene with a masterful hand.

Marjorie is one of the most complex and demanding roles in contemporary comedy, calling upon an actress to teeter on the brink of madness for almost two solid hours. Like all good comedy writing, there is a melody line built into every line and scene. Robin Strasser, best known for her Emmy Award-winning work on daytime television, is still defining where that line lies -- but she hurls herself into the role with spirit, winning laughs and sympathy along the way. Meg Foster is a breezy, sexy Lee, but she too is still working her way into some of the script's demands -- many entertaining moments, but the overall effect is less than dramatically satisfying. With a few more performances, I suspect both Foster and Strasser will take fuller command of the material.

As Marjorie's husband Ira, Lenny Wolpe gives the kind of seemingly effortless performance that can only come from a master of the craft. Every move and word is designed to serve the play, and as a consequence every possible laugh is smoothly and unerringly won. No wonder he has is one of Broadway's most admired character actors. Handsome Ariel Shafir is well cast as the apartment house doorman who brings the family surprising information on their enigmatic house guest.

All actors and fans of great acting please take note -- a unique clinic in the art of stage performance is being given nightly on the Paper Mill stage during this run of Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Shirl Bernheim triumphed as Marjorie's hyper-critical, potty mouthed mother in the original Broadway cast . Instead of merely repeating that acclaimed performance, she has reconceived her interpretation to fit this new production -- as a result, she is even more hilarious and touching than ever, offering a performance that is a triumph of professionalism and flawless technique. Her infirmities (quite real -- not just part of the show) do not not prevent this diminutive powerhouse from working magic in every corner of the multi-level set. Now in her eighties, she is fresh and irresistible. Playing the audience like a keyboard, she turns giggles into belly laughs, and big comic moments into show stoppers. In Far Eastern cultures, Shirl Bernheim would be hailed as a living treasure -- we Americans must settle for cheering like lunatics whenever she takes a bow. Years from now when Paper Mill regulars look back on this production, it is Ms. Bernheim's performance that they will be talking about.

Tale of the Allergist's Wife is one of the best American comedies of the last decade, the sort of intelligent, solidly written comedy that is likely to remain a part of the theatrical repertoire for years to come. Paper Mill has done a thoroughly professional job on this current incarnation -- confirmation (as if any were needed) that the good people of New Jersey need not look East of the Hudson for a top-quality theatre fix.

This production ran through Feb. 8, 2004