‘The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife’ at Theater J

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A hit Broadway comedy, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, rounds out Theater J’s 2014–2015 season in a production smartly directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Written in a mainstream mode by Charles Busch—whose oeuvre ordinarily tends toward outlandish—the play takes middle-of-the-road humor on a joy ride with so many enjoyable bends and twists the laughs could not whiz by faster.

Paul Morella, Lise Bruneau, Susan Rome, and Barbara Rappaport. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Paul Morella, Lise Bruneau, Susan Rome, and Barbara Rappaport. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The story takes place in an Upper West Side condo valued at (we are told) $2.5 million. Set Designer Caite Hevner Kemp has created a grand living room that’s trying to appear stylish but without any real style. The furniture looks pricey but doesn’t match. It’s as though no interior decorator was allowed near the place and instead the room was put together by someone of means but mediocre taste. That would be the central character, Marjorie Taub, the titular spouse. As the comedy begins she is drowning in a slough of despond, and Susan Rome, who plays Marjorie superbly, makes her mid-life crisis a giggle to watch.

Well read and cultured (she drops names like Herman Hesse and Rilke), and a supporter of a host of worthy charities, Marjorie says she’s mourning the death of her shrink but really she’s depressed about the meaninglessness of her existence. “I delve, I reflect, I brood,” she says. Her loving and faithful husband, Ira Taub, a revered and retired allergist played with earnest sensitivity by Paul Morella, can do nothing to lift her spirits. “I have ambiguities you can’t begin to fathom,” she tells him. Ira’s practice has set them up for privilege and leisure, but Marjorie’s life is a void she cannot fill.

That’s about to change.

Enter Lee Green, Marjorie’s childhood chum, who drops into the play as if by chance. It’s the classic interloper trope—like Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner and Paul in Six Degrees of Separation—and in Lise Bruneau’s enthrallingly entertaining performance, the character shifts things around and shakes everything up, leaving Marjorie’s life by the end turned around for the better.

Marjorie’s elderly mother, Frieda, lives in an apartment down the hall, makes her way with a walker and, in a running gag, is reliant on suppositories. Frieda adores Ira, her son-in-law, but harshly judges her daughter, Marjorie. Barbara Rappaport brings to the role a feistiness and comic timing that make her every line land to howls from the audience.

A fifth character, Mohammed, an émigré from Iraq, is the building lobby attendant, and in this insightful production Holdridge has given the role more prominence than it has in the script. Stationed stage right at a concierge desk throughout, Mohammed becomes a witness to the proceedings, somewhat the play’s conscience, and he seems to be taking notes on the show as it goes. (Projections Designer Ruthmarie Tenorio has his handwritten narrative texts appear on the proscenium above the stage.) Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s stolid performance as Mohammed has the effect of grounding the play and its lightweight first world problems in a weightier context—even as the jokes fly fast and furious.

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Susan Rome. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Susan Rome. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The entire production is as spiffy and classy as can be. Of particular note are the jazz interludes between scenes by Composer/Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis, Costume Designer Frank Labovitz’s elegant wardrobe for Marjorie and Lee, and the bright way Lighting Designer Jason Arnold makes the big abstract painting upstage seem to shimmer with color.

A hit on the Great White Way about 15 years ago (in a production I remember enjoying a lot), the play has been deftly updated by the author for the Theater J run with contemporary references to current technology and pop culture such that it feels completely fresh, as if written but months ago. Given how much in the world has changed since 2000, that achievement is remarkable.

Though The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife borrows a bunch from the television sit-com style of comic character quirks, clever zingers, and zany situations, it’s got more going on than meets the eye. There’s a method to the madcap, a moral to this tale. We can see it in Marjorie’s improbable yet persuasive character arc: She gets over herself and gets on with living purposefully. That’s not a bad prescription and it comes in the form of the best medicine—non-stop laughter.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

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The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays through July 5, 2015 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.