Nothing warms the heart like a good laugh, and there are laughs aplenty in the Kentwood Players’ 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 almost a decade 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, Jewish, mother Frieda offers unwanted advice and graphic descriptions of various bowel movements and other 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 (a seed planted by her husband and mother). Before Lee is done, she moves in and shakes up the entire family, challenging boundaries, redefining relationships, and wrapping herself in more than a few layers of mystery.
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. Joanna Churgin hurls herself into the role with spirit, winning laughs and sympathy along the way.
Marjorie's deepest joy has been in reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, a pleasure she shares with her young Iraqi doorman, Mohammed (Jonathan Ahmadi). In this fable, he is the wise one; that is, “he” wises everyone up.
Cynthia Rothschild is a breezy, sexy Lee who is seductive to nearly everyone. She laughs at Ira's jokes and flatters him easily. Lee is so charming that she convinces Frieda to make out a check for $5,000 to a “good cause.” Only Mohammed isn't taken in by her charm.
As Marjorie's husband Ira, Alan Levine 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. It doesn’t hurt that the play is centered around his old neighborhood in NYC.
Handsome Ahmadiis 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 Westchester Playhouse stage during this run of this play. Gail Bernardi as Marjorie's hyper-critical, potty-mouthed mother offers a performance that is a triumph of professionalism and flawless technique. Playing the audience like a keyboard, she turns giggles into belly laughs, and big comic moments into show stoppers. Years from now when Kentwood Players regulars look back on this production, it is Bernardi’s performance that they will be talking about most.
Award-winning director Lewis Hauser succeeds in bringing the script to life. Set designer Michael McGee 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. Maria Cohen’s costumes are exactly right, and Robert Davis lights every scene with a masterful hand.
Tale of the Allergist's W ife 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. Kentwood Players has done a thoroughly professional job on this current incarnation.
Tale of the Allergist's Wife, at the Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Avenue (Corner of Hindry and 83rd Street), through October 17; performances begin at 8 on Friday and Saturday evenings and 2 on Sunday afternoons; Call for Reservations - (310) 645-5156, Tuesday through Saturday – 4 p.m. to 7, or visit www.kentwoodplayers.org.