NJT closes season with witty, brainy play


The New Jewish Theatre is closing out its eleventh season — and its last in its current studio venue at the Jewish Community Center — with a first-rate production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, by Charles Busch. Seasoned director Edward Coffield works with a very strong cast to infuse Charles Busch’s challenging script with an immediacy and a vitality that eluded last year’s production of the same play at the Fox Theatre, which starred top-tier actress Valerie Harper (Rhoda, Golda) in the lead role as Marjorie Taub, described as a “typical Upper West Side wife (who) devotes her days to mornings at the Whitney, afternoons at MOMA and evenings at BAM, but is running on emotional empty.”

While Valerie Harper was all right as Marjorie, Penney Kols in the NJT production is spot-on perfect in the role, expressing Marjorie’s full range of conflicted emotions, her epic battles with her overbearingly strong mother Frieda Tuchman (Donna Weinsting, whose timing and delivery are superb), and her recently retired husband, Dr. Ira Taub (Bobby Miller, in a remarkably convincing portrayal), a highly successful allergist who is widely known and admired for his generous donation of services to the needy and his support of charitable and progressive causes.

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The audience meets Marjorie at the end of her emotional tether, recovering from what might have been a botched suicide attempt, or a cry for attention and validation. Her main support of comfort is the doorman, Mohammed, well-played by Adam Flores. Mohammed’s non-threatening, non-judgmental understanding of Marjorie’s mood swings bring comfort to her.

Into Marjorie’s already tumultous life, which alternates between out of control ranting and raving and the quiet desperation of a woman who feels her life lacks purpose and meaning, enters Lee Green (Lavonne Byers, who is absolutely terrific in a challenging role), who seems to just pop in on her. Marjorie and Lee quickly recall that they knew each other as childhood friends, when Lee went by the name of Lillian Greenblatt, which she changed because it was not “melodious.” Lee is a whirlwind of optimism, namedropping of celebrities and claimed experiences which if true would make Forrest Gump and Zelig look like they were pikers by comparison. Lee claims to have visited China with Richard and Pat Nixon, and to have befriended the latter; to having been in Sarajevo, to have met and advised Princess Diana, etc. Marjorie, out of a willing suspension of disbelief or by the sheer forcefulness of Lee’s personality, intellect and claimed exciting life loses all resistance to her.

Meanwhile we become aware of the titanic struggles between Marjorie and her Mom, Frieda, who makes the fictional “Jewish mothers” created by the likes of Philip Roth and Woody Allen look like Harriet Nelson or June Cleaver. Frieda plays her martyrdom role to the hilt, recalling that she witnessed her father being run over by a train. She seems to deliberately time her too graphic descriptions of her digestive and bowel problems just as Marjorie and Ira begin to eat. She is really a piece of work, and Donna Weinsting vividly brings her to life.

While Busch’s Tony-nominated play is a comedy, it does not lack its serious moments, including strong confrontations among the characters which are sometimes more jolting than funny. The play opened on Broadway in 2000, and ran for nearly 800 performances. It is appropriately described by New York magazine as “an intelligently funny, satirically relevant uptown comedy.”

Marjorie’s malaise was triggered by the death of her beloved therapist, and she is desperate to fill the void she has left. While the doorman Mohammed is an empathetic listener, neither he nor Ira, and certainly not her ultra-kvetch of an extremely critical mother can do anything effective to lift her out of her depression and lack of self-esteem. Then along comes Lee, who literally takes the upscale Upper West Side residence of Marjorie and Ira by storm. In contrast to Marjorie’s life of quiet desperation, Lee’s self-described life is that of a femme fatale, whose constant manic energy and zest for life and its pleasures serve to bring Marjorie out of her funk.

Lee has much in common with the fraudulent character who pretends to be Sidney Poitier’s son in Six Degrees of Separation. Marjorie’s, and later Ira’s need to believe in someone who can restore positive energy, excitement and experimentation to their lives causes them to fall victim not only to Lee’s charms but to her charlatanism.

As the play buiilds to its climax, Lee by turns serves as a breath of fresh air, a mediator of the fight between Marjorie and her mother, to an out of control seductress who manipulates Marjorie and Ira into emotionally risky games, to one who appears to be a scary victimizer. Along the way there are plenty of laughs and unexpected twists and turns to the plot. As one of the characters says more than once, life “is both simple and complex at the same time,” and life in all of its simplicity and complexity is explored brilliantly, humorously and dramatically in the NJT production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.

(The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife will complete its run on June l, at the New Jewish Theatre’s studio venue at the Jewish Community Center, and will be the last NJT play to be presented there. Next season, while the renovations at the JCC are being completed, which will include a new and larger NJT theater space, NJT productions will be presented at the black box studio theater at Clayton High School. For more information call Kathleen Sitzer, artistic director, at 314-442-3257. For ticket information, call 314-442-3283).