Charles Busch is not known for holding back, and he certainly heaves a lot at the wall in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.’’
Enough of it sticks to generate some raucous merriment in a production at Lyric Stage Company, but it’s not sufficient, ultimately, for this unwieldy comedy to succeed.
Director Larry Coen, who helmed a great SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Busch’s “The Divine Sister’’ three years ago, keeps the proceedings in high gear at Lyric Stage. Yet “Allergist’s Wife’’ still feels stranded halfway between the unhinged, envelope-pushing farces Busch is known for and a more traditional, Neil Simon-style comedy of cosmopolitan ennui. That is, if Simon was to find himself in an R-rated frame of mind.
As Terrence McNally did with the current Broadway revival of his “It’s Only a Play,” Busch has updated the references — to Jack Kevorkian, for instance — in “Allergist’s Wife,’’ which premiered in 2000, enjoyed a lengthy Broadway run, and earned a Tony nomination for best play. And as with McNally’s comedy, the allusions to bold-face figures in “Allergist’s Wife’’ are deliberate and relentless.
Indeed, enough literary and showbiz names are dropped to carpet the handsome Upper West Side apartment where the dissatisfied and despondent Marjorie Taub, ably portrayed by Marina Re, is moping around in her bathrobe as the play begins.
Marjorie lives with her self-aggrandizing husband, Ira, played to preening perfection by the estimable Joel Colodner. Ira has recently retired from his practice as an allergist, but his ego is still working overtime. Also on hand is Marjorie’s stereotypically crotchety mother, Frieda, portrayed by Ellen Colton. Frieda’s complaints about her never-ending bowel troubles are funny the first time, but the law of diminishing returns soon sets in as Busch continues to push the joke. Mohammed, the apartment building’s Iraqi doorman and Marjorie’s confidant, pops in periodically. Zaven Ovian gives a witty and likable performance as Mohammed.
Having reached middle age, Marjorie feels unfulfilled, despite her extensive volunteer work. She wrote a novel, but it was unpublished. She frequents museums and is familiar with the work of Franz Kafka, Anne Sexton, and Herman Hesse, but she fears that she is really naught but “a fraud. A cultural poseur.’’ She quarrels with her mother over questions of Jewish identity (though that topic is probed more acutely in Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,’’ currently at SpeakEasy). Marjorie’s intellectual pursuits seem to have led to a dead end — Matt Whiton’s set features two towering columns of books, a testament to all that fruitless reading — and she is, she says, “hungry for meaning.’’ Marjorie wails: “Who’s gonna volunteer to save me?’’
Along comes salvation — maybe — in the form of Marjorie’s long-unseen childhood friend Lee Green (Caroline Lawton, quite good). From the moment she sweeps through the door, Lee is cloaked in an air of glamour and mystery and infinite self-confidence. She speaks often of herself in the third person, and to hear her tell it, her celebrity acquaintances have ranged from Quincy Jones to Günter Grass. She seems to have a positively Zelig-like knack for being on the scene at momentous events — the fall of the Berlin Wall, for instance — and even claims to have inspired an artistic breakthrough or two. Turns out Andy Warhol owes the whole soup-can thing to Lee. Who knew?
Through sheer force of personality, Lee succeeds in rekindling Marjorie’s enthusiasm for life. But is Lee hiding a secret or two behind that flamboyant facade? For instance, what’s the deal with that shadowy “international relief organization’’ for which Lee works as a fund-raiser?
As he works through the complications of his story, Busch alternates between incisive social observation and trenchant one-liners on the one hand, and clunky, ham-handed exchanges on the other, climaxing with an ending that feels forced and hastily assembled. While “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife’’ is sporadically entertaining, the overall sensation is of having your arm twisted rather than being beguiled into laughter.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.