Marjorie Taub is the kind of character you might expect to find in a Neil Simon play, or perhaps in any number of conventional TV sitcoms. She is a well-off, middle-aged denizen of New York's upper West Side who wears all the right clothes and has, at one time or another, supported all the right social causes. She possesses a volatile personality, a rapier wit and an unselfish heart. She has a ditzy mother, a kind (if somewhat inane) husband and two grown children who have flown the nest giving her more than enough time to confront her inner demons and unmet wants.
Yet Marjorie is far from your conventional character, and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife by Charles Busch (now making its Central Florida debut at Theatre Downtown) is far from your conventional comedy. For instance, how many characters quote Rimbaud and Kafka and rhapsodize over the novels of Herman Hesse not just Siddhartha, but Magister Ludi as well? And how many housewives have written a novel with Plato and Helen Keller as the main protagonists?
At curtain, Marjorie (Susan Fronsoe) is in a definite funk. It was brought on by the death of her beloved therapist and a public meltdown at the local Disney Store. She spends her days in her pajamas trying to fend off the best intentions of her hapless husband, Ira (Jim Bruner) a retired physician who devotes most of his time to his clinic for homeless allergy sufferers and her dyspeptic mother, Frieda (Genie Lindberg), who fills her well-appointed apartment with woeful tales of digestive discomfort.
Into Marjorie's despair walks Lee (Monica Travers), an old childhood friend whose incredible whirlwind of a life lifts Marjorie out of her dark mood. Lee has been everywhere and done everything. She has shared soup with Andy Warhol and lectured Princess Diana on the danger of land mines. She accompanied the Nixons to China, hung out with Kerouac and Baldwin in Greenwich Village and was present at the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Her accidental presence on the scene launches the play's somewhat tenuous plot, which first causes Marjorie to doubt her sanity, then brings about the expansion of her sexual and intellectual horizons and finally forces her to legitimize her bourgeois, neurotic existence.
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is a very funny work, and director Christian Kelty and his talented cast have made the most of its witty dialogue and sitcom shtick. Yet for all its off-kilter humor, the play is not a particularly successful one. The delightful tease of the first act and the dangerous tiptoeing into forbidden zones at the beginning of the second are not well served by the story's denouement. Playwright Busch, whose earlier avant-garde offerings include Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, seems to have written himself into a corner and then tried to walk through a wall, hoping we wouldn't notice.
But even if the play ends disappointingly, watching it is no displeasure. Most enjoyable is Fronsoe's performance as the tortured and ultimately heroic Marjorie. Witnessing her battle existential despair with a manic forthrightness and a decidedly Bronx accent is a theatrical treat one simply could not obtain watching reruns of Maude.