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THEATER

You Figure It Out

Making New York Jews understood in L.A. isn't an issue. It's agreeing on what 'Allergist's Wife' means.

June 23, 2002|JAN BRESLAUER

Frieda: You're eating early because you're going to a Broadway show.

Ira: We're going to BAM to see an experimental all-male Irish "Oresteia." Marjorie says the director is a 25-year-old international wunderkind.

Frieda: She's making you schlep all the way out to Brooklyn. Dear merciful God.

Ira: It doesn't take long on the subway.

NEW YORK--High-culture maven Marjorie Taub is plotzed on the couch in her Upper West Side co-op. All around the room are shelves filled with books--the library of someone who spends a lot of time reading and going to lectures at the 92nd Street Y and the New School for Social Research. But Marjorie is depressed. Oy, is she depressed.

In fact, Marjorie recently had an episode. Not a suicide attempt, you should know, but she did smash a few--OK, a number of--figurines in the Disney store. Not to worry, they're not pressing charges.

Marjorie is the title character in Charles Busch's comedy "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," which opens Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, directed by Lynne Meadow and starring Valerie Harper, Tony Roberts and Michele Lee.

Harper, who plays Marjorie, is not sitting on the couch. In fact, she's not sitting anywhere just yet, because she hasn't shown up at the publicists' office where she's scheduled for an interview. She's reportedly stuck in midtown traffic, or dealing with problems at her apartment, as it's later learned.

Roberts has already arrived, looking hale in a black knit shirt and a brown tweed sport coat. The veteran stage and film actor plays Harper's husband of 32 years, the highly successful and recently retired allergist Dr. V. Ira Taub. As a lifelong New Yorker, Roberts has a thing or two to say about this show--and how the long-running Broadway hit may play in L.A. "All the references are very New York savvy, and for that reason, we were very worried when we first started whether or not audiences across the Hudson would dig it," he says. "Even the pundits of New York are hard put to explain how this has gone on."

For a guy who says "dig it," he seems to know what he's talking about. "The themes of this play are universal," he says. "They don't only apply to any one ethnic or cultural group. It doesn't matter that nobody west of the Hudson ever heard of the 92nd Street Y. She could say it was the 186th Street Z. It wouldn't matter. They're picking up on things that have nothing to do with being Jewish or being in New York."

The human whoopee cushion in this Gotham "Tale" is Lee Green (played by Lee), Marjorie's old childhood friend who suddenly appears and stirs things up. "You don't have to be Jewish to like rye bread," says the L.A.-based actress, speaking by phone a few weeks later. "This average couple is just on their journey in life and things happen to them. And of course there's all kinds of sexual titillation that people wouldn't expect."

Mohammed: Mrs. Taub, describe to me your vision once more.

Marjorie: It should be a feverish dream out of Baudelaire. Exotic, mesmerizing. This doesn't say "extravagant decadence." This says "lighting fixture."

Mohammed: No it says "romantic opulence."

Marjorie (losing her patience): It says "Repro bought at cost."

In Scene 1, Marjorie appears in a schmata of muumuu-like proportions, a sartorial horror. Later on, once Lee is on the scene, she's in Vera Wang.

Busch is a man who knows that clothes make the woman--as well he ought. He wore enough of them. In his earlier escapades, that is.

In the mid-1980s, Busch reigned as one of the premiere thespian drag queens of the East Village. He was known for writing and starring in a clutch of campy cinema send-ups, including "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" and "Psycho Beach Party," which was released as a low-budget film in 2000. Yes, honey, it's that Charles Busch.

More recently, he's shed the false eyelashes and gotten serious about his writing. In fact, the Pasadena Playhouse recently announced that next spring it will stage an adaptation of the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical "House of Flowers" by the erstwhile downtown diva and his longtime director, Kenneth Elliott. Set in a West Indies bordello, the retooled 1954 work could prove Broadway bound. No casting announcements yet, but wags on the Rialto say Busch and Patti LaBelle are in a dead heat for the lead.

But back to the opus du jour, the one that put the stardust in his stilettos in the first place. It's a midlife crisis comedy about a woman who has achieved a certain level of comfort and now finds herself at a loss. Into her malaise trots her old girlhood pal, looking sensational, to present poor Marjorie with the unbearable contrast of everything her life is not.

So who is this intruding enigma? "I would rather not say who I think my character is, it's really nobody's business," chirps Lee, best known from her Emmy-nominated stint on the 1979-93 CBS series "Knots Landing" and still ever so hostess-with-the-mostes' bubbly.

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