To call the plays of Charles Busch camp would be like saying the Yankees show some promise. The only reason to use the term is that it's the closest to subtle understatement that anything connected with "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" is likely to get. Busch's comedy, transferring to Broadway from the Manhattan Theater Club, is like "Hedda Gabler" written by Liberace. Here, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" meets "The Wild Women of Wonga."
About 30 years ago, audiences discovered that in addition to "good" and "bad," there was a third category of critical judgment: "So bad it's good." In literature, this new trend was represented by a taste for the dazzlingly awful Scottish poet William McGonagall. In pop culture, it was the abysmal B-movies of Ed Wood. Busch wants to be a creature from these dark lagoons. "The Allergist's Wife" follows such high-camp parodies as "Psycho Beach Party" and "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom."
Though ostensibly more domestic and restrained, it strives for the same kind of glorious badness. That it ends up being merely bad is a result of two basic misconceptions. What makes a McGonagall poem or a Wood movie so painfully funny is that they're not trying to be funny at all. McGonagall thought he was going to be the new Shakespeare. Wood wanted to be Cecil B. DeMille. The comedy comes out of a touching innocence. The other problem is that, unlike the movies, the theater has a long and brilliant history of high camp. If you want to play in this game, the competition is not Wood, but Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton. "The Allergist's Wife" simply isn't in that league. Without either the innocence of a Wood or the genius of a Wilde, the joke wears very thin. From the start, the play is pitched at a level somewhere between shrill and hysterical. Linda Lavin's Marjorie, the middle-aged allergist's wife of the title, is a would-be West Side Jewish intellectual. As the play opens, she is demented with grief at the death of her therapist. Whether by accident or design, Michele Lee, her long-lost childhood friend from the Bronx, turns up at her door, trailing glamor, mystery and seduction in her wake. Tony Roberts, as her quietly pompous husband, Ira, is a perfect foil. Shirl Bernheim as her foulmouthed mother feeds the hysteria with her fixation on bowel movements and her relentless put-downs. For a while, Lavin's immense repertoire of shrieks, wails and howls is a lot of fun. The energy she generates as she throws herself around like a dying diva at the end of an opera is, in its own way, compelling. Busch also gets some mildly satiric mileage from sending up Marjorie and Ira's liberal pretensions. But if you start out so far over the top, where do you go next? Busch has just one note, and he repeats it over and over. In order to get to an ending, moreover, he's forced to move beyond the absurd and into the merely silly. The play crosses the thin line between being cleverly bad and being simply no good. The cast is too consummately professional to let it all fall apart. But no amount of skill and hard work can prevent an allergic outbreak of terminal tedium.
Long ago, in far-off England, I made the encouraging discovery that all American humor - with the exception of Mark Twain and the Canadian Stephen Leacock - was in fact New York Jewish humor. And anyway what kind of name is Sam Clemens?
And this is the codebook to Charles Busch's new comedy, "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.
Now rather like Levy's Bread (remember Levy's Bread?) I presume you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy it, but it doesn't hurt.
When the play was first produced at the Manhattan Theater Club earlier in the year, with the same cast, starring the divine Linda Lavin, Tony Roberts and Michele Lee, and the same director, Lynne Meadow, it seemed very much a 'Tale' without an ending.
It just dropped off. And, despite assurances that a new, improved conclusion had been provided, it still just drops off, like a lizard shedding its skin.
Yet that New York Jewish humor - pushy, outrageous, wiseass but irresistibly smart - is as apparent and as in-your-face here as it is in Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Goethe or any of the other great Jewish wits.
Yet some of the others, Simon for unfashionable example, try to take the wisecrack home to truth, try to give the humor an underpinning of reality which goes beyond joke recognition.
"The Allergist's Wife" is an anecdote more than a story - an anecdote about a Riverside Drive matron, who markets at Zabar's and shops at Saks, a hemi-semi-demi-intellectual who reads Herman Hesse, goes to lectures at the Y, and has probably given up The New Republic for The New Criterion.
You know the type. We all do. She's in an identity crisis of purpose. We all are.
Busch has a nice ear for the zeitgeist - or if we are being fancy, the pseudo-zeitgeist, which is what we can all laugh at with a certain misguided degree of superiority. And laugh we do.
The director Meadow has got lovely, crisply stylized performances from her cast. Roberts is the model priggish but kindly physician with a moral aim, and Lee proves adorable as a seductive and mysterious femme fatale who turns Golem (if you don't get this, don't worry, the play explains) but has an impossible role which gets more unlikely as the play disintegrates.
Add a feisty old woman, a neatly abrasive Shirl Bernheim as the Wife's most Jewish of Jewish Mothers who suffers from what be termed irritating bowel syndrome, and Anil Kunar as an educated and suave Iraqi doorman, almost too handy for his own good.
But the play is really all about Linda Lavin, for it surrounds her like a pink cloud of admiration. And rightly so, for Lavin gives a performance that makes virtuosity into a natural human condition, as she runs marathon gamuts of emotions and reactions suggesting a warm textbook of woman in midlife chaos.
Santo Loquasto has designed an apartment that when you hear $900,000 quoted as its market value you nod your head knowingly, while Ann Roth's costumes clearly know their way around the neighborhood.
This is Busch's first legitimate (one might almost say straight) comedy, and perhaps at present Charles is not quite a burning Busch, but he is smoldering very hopefully. A much to be wished conflagration might be hoped for with his very next match.
But please, Charles - take that next play and, whatever you do, end it!
The hard-working demons who possessed little Linda Blair in ''The Exorcist'' have nothing on the forces raging within one Marjorie Taub, the title character of ''The Tale of the Allergist's Wife,'' which opened last night at the Manhattan Theater Club.
In Charles Busch's window-rattling comedy of midlife malaise on the Upper West Side, Marjorie is played by Linda Lavin and this Tony-winning actress brings a high-flying fierceness to being down in the dumps.
Switch on a light when Marjorie is moping in the shadows, and she shrieks and recoils like a vampire dragged from the crypt. And if someone suggests that she may be a little, well, unhinged, she responds with a furious monologue that suggests a werewolf playing Greek tragedy. Feeling blue, as Ms. Lavin renders it, is a study in Technicolor.
Ms. Lavin's Marjorie is also, believe it or not, remarkably pleasant company, the center of a nimble sitcom of a play that pushes at the edges of its form without ripping through them. Mr. Busch is best-known for his appealingly warped cinematic parodies in which he plays the nobly suffering or archly conniving leading lady (''The Lady in Question,'' ''Vampire Lesbians of Sodom'').
Here the female icon that Mr. Busch comes closest to impersonating is Wendy Wasserstein, the writer of such beloved epigram-slinging hits as ''The Heidi Chronicles'' and ''The Sisters Rosensweig.'' You may also find yourself thinking of Neil Simon's mid-career comedies, plays that present harried New Yorkers speaking naturally in competitive one-liners.
Mr. Busch, it would seem, has swum straight into the mainstream. And with the graceful, unobtrusive assistance of the director Lynne Meadow and an assured cast that also features Tony Roberts and Michele Lee, he stays comfortably afloat there. ''Tale'' has moments cut from the synthetic cloth of television comedy, and it doesn't quite know how to resolve itself. But it earns its wall-to-wall laughs.
Marjorie Taub, wife of Ira the allergist (Mr. Roberts) and avid consumer of high culture, was first portrayed by Mr. Busch (under another name) in a segment of his one-person show ''Flipping My Wig.'' Yet at no point in this production do you feel that Ms. Lavin is imitating a man imitating a woman. Real women, after all, can be just as self-dramatizing as drag queens; they just tend (for the most part) to look less like cartoons.
Indeed, if you've spent any time in Marjorie's usual haunts -- Zabar's, say, or the 92nd Street Y, where many of her favorite cultural events are held -- you've probably met someone very much like her: a wry but slightly fretful older woman in chic designer clothing (the costume designer Ann Roth knows just how she would dress), clutching a copy of The New York Review of Books.
She is an easy target for satire, with her infinite leisure time and intellectual aspirations, but no one involved in ''Tale'' is taking potshots. Marjorie may seem ludicrous with her references to Kafka, Rimbaud, Beauvoir and Hesse (her all-time favorite) and her description of her unpublished novel in which both Helen Keller and Plato are characters. But Marjorie is never merely ridiculous. Ms. Lavin endows her with too much real passion for that.
The play begins with Marjorie wallowing in the funk brought about by the death of her adored therapist and her recent public breakdown in a Disney store. Life in her tastefully appointed apartment (perfectly designed in coordinating shades of brown by Santo Loquasto) has never seemed emptier.
Her husband, Ira, with his clinic for the allergy-impaired homeless, seems most irritatingly fulfilled. Even Marjorie's aged, combative mother, Frieda (Shirl Bernheim), who lives down the hall, has her obsession with her digestive tract to keep her occupied. Marjorie, in contrast, sums up her condition with a banshee cry delivered in nasal French: ''Perdu!''
Enter Marjorie's long lost childhood pal, Lee (Michele Lee), a free spirit with the resume that includes accompanying the Nixons to mainland China and a part as an extra in a Fassbinder movie. This glamorous name-dropper (her early days in Greenwich Village were spent with Kerouac and Baldwin) so completely fills the void in Marjorie's life that she immediately incites several varieties of suspicion.
How those suspicions are and are not confirmed gives ''Tale'' its tenuous plot. The play's first act turns into an often delightful tease, building to an uproarious curtain scene in which Marjorie hysterically questions her own sanity. The second act has Ira and Marjorie venturing into danger zones beyond their bourgeois existence; both the play and the Taubs then retreat awkwardly and abruptly, and the evening ends on an unsatisfyingly flustered note.
Yet even if you leave ''Tale'' feeling hungry, you're unlikely to experience similar pangs while watching it. Granted, the script has moments that are pure sitcom shtick, as when Marjorie defiantly tells off her mother's doctor on the telephone in an applause-milking scene that recalls every other episode of ''Designing Women.''
But for the most part Mr. Busch demonstrates a sure gift for turning gimlet-eyed social observation into hearty comedy with just one little push into exaggeration. And under Ms. Meadow's direction, the actors provide a balancing quality of restraint that both enhances comic impact and disguises cliches.
Mr. Roberts, the straight man of Woody Allen films for so many years, is an expert in resonant underplaying and an essential part of the production's chemistry of credibility. Ms. Bernheim brings a winning directness (as opposed to the usual preciousness) to her passive-aggressive geriatric.
Anil Kumar is charmingly effortless-seeming in his small but crucial role as a doorman. And Ms. Lee, who improbably remains just as much a knockout as she was in her heyday as a sex symbol in the 1960's, conveys surface cheer and tantalizing ambiguity with minimal effort.
No one could call Ms. Lavin's tireless performance low-key, and yet it never seems false. She has the physical nuances of a certain type of upper-middle-class Manhattanite down cold, from the way she sucks in her cheeks in moments of impatience to the fussy social reflexes of the veteran hostess.
At the same time, there is a fine madness in Marjorie, a heroic sense of despair and exasperation. Of course a woman who judges everything by standards set by Tolstoy and Flaubert is going to find herself wanting. But even as she sighs, ''Everything today seems so trifling,'' Ms. Lavin's battling dilettante cannot be dismissed as trivial.
Following hot on the heels of David Auburn's "Proof," Charles Busch's "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" has made a smooth transition to Broadway, where Manhattan Theater Club now has two new American plays in residence -- cause for celebration in itself.
Both productions arrive with cast and creative teams essentially intact, and are perhaps most notable as showcases for the terrific turns of their female stars. The chief delight of the "Tale" transfer is the chance it affords a wide audience to experience Linda Lavin's transcendently funny Marjorie Taub, to use a description that would be dear to the heart of this Herman Hesse-obsessed, BAM-going, New School-attending New York matron.
In Marjorie, Busch, the accomplished (drag) actor and playwright who has long specialized in both sending up and celebrating female archetypes, has drawn something entirely fresh: a portrait of the would-be artist as a frustrated middle-aged woman. Marjorie has all the accoutrements of Jewish Upper West Side success -- the esteemed doctor husband, the $900,000 co-op, the grown-up, (fairly) successful girls -- and just one major blight, a bubonic plague of a mother.
But as the play opens a new blight has descended upon her: Following the death of her beloved therapist, Marjorie is visited by a Kafka-worthy fit of anomie. "Are you hungry?" asks her befuddled husband Ira (Tony Roberts) as Marjorie lies listlessly on the chaise longue. "I'm hungry for meaning!" comes the volcanic reply. The play describes Marjorie's emotional rejuvenation under the captivating influence of girlhood friend Lee Green (Michele Lee), formerly Lillian Greenblatt, whose cornucopia of accomplishments give Marjorie a vicarious lift. Alas, the succubus of misery Lee helps lift is replaced by the incubus Lee herself turns out to be.
As was to be expected from an actress of her caliber, Lavin's performance in the role has grown richer. She's as blisteringly funny as before, certainly, and her delivery of Busch's sharp-witted one-liners should be studied for its impeccable combination of emotional veracity and stage savvy. The double-takes, too, are worthy of awe, as Marjorie reels from disbelief at her husband's utter incomprehension of her existential crise to dismay at her mother's relentless obsession with her bowel functions (rather crassly overplayed by the playwright, actually, in tandem with the old-lady-with-a-foul-mouth act).
But as Lavin clearly knows, behind every great comic character is a tragic one fighting to get out, and she inflects Marjorie's dazed misery, her air of sleepwalking clumsily through her padded life, with authentic layers of grief. When Marjorie tells the newly arrived Lee of the novel she once wrote and then discarded, Lavin wins the explosive laughs embedded in the description of this preposterous book ("Plato and Helen Keller were major characters..."), but she also honors the dignifying truth of Marjorie's disappointed ambitions.
Although Marjorie's relentless pursuit of culture and her overweening artistic pretensions are the subject of much of the play's ripest humor, both Busch and Lavin have real affection and respect for this character, whose insecurities aren't so much a sign of inferiority as a mark of deep emotional and intellectual hungers -- things far more to be admired than the name-dropping trawl through the 20th century that is Lee's decidedly suspect (and also hilarious) curriculum vitae. Although Marjorie is funny, in Lavin's hands she's not just a joke.
Supporting Lavin's memorable portrait are the polished comic performances of the rest of the cast under the brisk direction of MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow. There's the priceless underplaying of Roberts as the mensch Ira, the braying ferociousness of Shirl Bernheim as Marjorie's self-pitying mother and the crisp charisma Lee brings to the role of the interloping Lee. (One might only wonder what a contrasting performance by a comedienne on the order of Christine Baranski or J. Smith-Cameron might have brought to this ambiguous role.) Anil Kumar is appealing in the small role of the doorman -- and he now provides a sort of amuse-bouche for Busch's large gay following in the play's opening moments, wearing a snugly tailored T-shirt over a gym-buffed physique.
Santo Loquasto's handsome set, expanded considerably from the dimensions of MTC's second stage, is now the perfect picture of upper-middle-class splendor. Ann Roth's defining costumes and Christopher Akerlind's subtle lighting accessorize it with finesse.
The only bad news is that Busch has not solved the play's conceptual problems: the second act is still muddled and ultimately unsatisfactory. But in Lavin's assured hands, Marjorie Taub, the heroine of a Greek tragedy stuck in a Loehmann's world, transcends the play's flaws. And as the explosive laughter rippling through the Barrymore Theater attests, her saga is providing Broadway with the funniest play to be seen thereabouts in several seasons.