Coming to Terms
The Tale of the Allergists Wife is the first play that Charles Busch did not expressly write as a vehicle for one of his own drag performances, and, it turns out, its his safest and most bourgeois comedy -- it all but shouts Mittelbraue. Its also been his biggest hit, one whose popularity carried it in 2000 from the Manhattan Theater Club to Broadway and, now, to L.A.s Ahmanson Theater. The storys center is Marjorie Taub (Valerie Harper), an ennui-numbed hausfrau who lives on New Yorks Upper West Side with her husband, Ira (Tony Roberts), an allergy doctor who sees himself as a kind of Albert Schweitzer for the bronchially challenged poor. While Ira is an insufferable do-gooder who tans himself in the praise of others, Marjorie is a harmless culture vulture, a habitue of 92nd Street Y lectures and Film Forum retrospectives who talks in a sort of book-jacketspeak, oozing intellectual pretension and unfulfilled artistic longings.
Patronized by her husband and hectored by her yiddishe mother, Frieda (Shirl Bernheim), the moping Marjorie is suddenly given a shot of self-confidence by a chance encounter with her childhood friend and international bon vivant, Lee Green (Michele Lee), whom she hasnt seen in 40 years. Not only does Lee claim to have been present at many of those years great political and cultural events, she seems to have known or bedded many of their important figures (even if Buschs historical math doesnt always add up). Before long, she has moved in with the Taubs for an indefinite stay.
Allergists Wife is a play whose story exists to support its stream of quips, an evening of punch lines in search of a plot -- if one were to subtract all of its digressive gags, there wouldnt be very much left. But that has mattered little to audiences, insofar as Buschs dialogue crackles with hilarious laments and tart observations that skewer the intellectual ambitions and liberal assumptions of middle-class New York Jews, along with their reflexive support for good causes and for other minorities. Which, paradoxically, makes Allergists Wife a perfect fit for its new stage, for it also ridicules the very political correctness associated with venues like the Ahmanson and the Mark Taper Forum.
Busch has said he wrote Allergists Wife for Linda Lavin, who performed as Marjorie in the New York productions. The current Lynne Meadow--directed show, with its glorious townhouse set by Santo Loquasto, is the original sans La Lavin, who has been replaced by Harper. Its a subtle but important sans: Where Lavin exuded a palpable weariness that evaporated under Lees influence, here Harper -- prone to mugging -- plays the role more overtly for laughs. Its still a winning performance, though, as are the turns by Roberts and Bernheim, both of whom play irritable characters whose common-sense humanity never deserts them. Even Lee, in the unsympathetic role of the shahtoosh-clad parasite Lee Green, brings a frisky charm to the proceedings.
In many ways Buschs comedy resembles Woody Allens films about Manhattan, and not just because of Tony Roberts presence. Like Allens, Buschs New York Jews wear their brains on their sleeves, all the while giving themselves over to self-improvement and voluntarism. But Allergists Wife is also deeply conservative, for where Allen is affectionately bemused by New Yorks liberal heartbeat, Busch seems positively appalled by it -- not only do the self-analytical Marjorie, Ira and Lee come off as foolish and prideful; Busch also has their personalities judged by Frieda, who, despite her querulousness, is presented as a down-to-earth arbiter of human behavior.
Seen one way, Lee is a successful version of Marjorie -- the embodiment of all the secret desires that Marjorie could not handle even if she were given the chance to realize them. The storys main disruption is not really Lee and her exotic cuisine or pansexuality, or her human-rights activism (which Busch paranoiacally equates with terrorism), but the fact that Lee effectively removes Ira as the center of both Marjorie and Friedas attention -- to Buschs thinking, this is the emergency that must be corrected and why everything must be restored to its earlier, natural order.
These quaintly Victorian views extend to the fun Busch pokes at the very Jewishness of the names mentioned in his story (Reba Fabrikant, Libby Fleischmann, Lillian Greenblatt), while at the same time picking on Lee for changing hers from Greenblatt to Green. At least Busch has cut Marjories second-act speechifying on behalf of Israel which, regardless of ones politics, came out of nowhere and did nothing except pander -- albeit quite successfully -- to New York audiences. Busch, to his credit, has deleted these and lets his L.A. audiences applaud what makes them laugh, not what scares them.
Vicki Juditz is a woman with a story to tell. Many stories, really, for over the past 10 years she has regaled audiences with accounts of life events ranging from her conversion to Judaism, to her befriending of a Chinese immigrant woman to, most recently, the difficult birth of her daughter, Molly. Where Do Babies Come From?, now running at the Elephant Theater, is the autobiographical story of a woman who badly wants to have children but, after two miscarriages, discovers she can never bear them because she has only half a uterus. Four years ago, Juditz and her husbanddirector, Alan Kirschenbaum, decided to find a surrogate mother. What followed was a harrowing tale of adversity: The surrogate, Megan, first miscarried, then developed toxemia and other problems during the 35th week of her second attempt to have the couples baby.
If todays pop culture seems unduly dominated by children -- lets face it, were bombarded by an endless stream of news reports about toys, awash in talking-baby films, tyrannized by juvenile consumerism -- rest assured that Juditzs solo show is no cute play for sympathy. Her two-hour monologue unfolds like a complex music composition, by turns gentle, sardonic and frightening. (The last 20 minutes are as nail-biting as they come.) Attired in a long floral-print dress and sensible shoes, Juditz presents an image of aching simplicity. True, her show could probably drop the slides that are projected on a nearby screen (there seemed to be a Powerpoint meltdown on the night I attended), but the soft little voice and sincere eyes onstage never let us forget we are in the company of a woman who has a lot to lose by being honest, but who is too trusting not to be. a
Juditz, 44, was born near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and, following graduation from Bucknell University, moved to New York to break into acting, only to find herself pigeonholed in kooky character roles for TV commercials. She and Kirschenbaum, a television writer, moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, and, a few years later, she began appearing onstage. Perhaps her most memorable piece has been Teshuva, Return, the story of her journey as a Protestant with a Jewish-sounding name, who retraces her familys roots to Germany, only to confront anti-Semitic relatives indifferent to the Holocaust. By the end of this evening of self-discovery, she has become a Jew.
Juditz and Kirschenbaum live on a leafy street in Burbank, halfway between the towns Media District and its Equestrian Center. A flagstone walk lined with snapdragons winds up to an alpine-looking house built in the 1930s. These days, Juditzs life is divided between Molly and her appearances on the storytelling circuit, which is composed of a decidedly mixed bag of performers that includes monologists, folk musicians and childrens entertainers, and who typically gather in huge tents. The National Storytelling Festival is the really big one, Juditz says. Its in Jonesborough, Tennessee, where they show up with pickup trucks, big hats and guns. Its also where she learned that not all of her stories work in every region, as one listener who sat through Teshuva made clear after her performance.
I dont really like this kind of thing, the man drawled, but you were good.
Sometimes, in the course of her life, Juditz cannot help but think that an unfolding incident might eventually make a good performance (I just knew my wedding would be a story, she confesses, and so bought a wedding dress I knew I could later perform in). She usually tries not to view her life as potential stage material, however, and often excludes from her work details that might seem, from a distance, to be innately dramatic. Babies, for example, ends with Mollys birth, but Juditz doesnt mention her failed attempts later on to have another child through a second surrogate mother.
Nor does she view her live performance work in terms of movie-of-the-week potential. I am the most un-Hollywood person, she says in the little voice that sounds so vulnerable. Its just who I am.
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