The Importance of Being Humorous

When comedy doesn't work

Not until Act Two of Charles Busch's confused but entertaining Tale of the Allergist's Wife does this asymmetric comedy finally get moving. In Act One we're introduced to Marjorie Taub, a depressed, erudite middle-aged upper-income Jewish woman; to Marjorie's retired-doctor husband Ira; and to Marjorie's mother, the bowels-obsessed Freida.

We're also introduced to Lee Green, Marjorie's childhood friend who promises to put some joy back into her life. But then nothing happens — nothing, that is, except Marjorie and Lee's incessant name-dropping and Freida's relentless allusions to her excretory functions. What kind of name-dropping? Well, in just the opening five minutes Marjorie mentions Baudelaire, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Spinoza — and she keeps it up all through the play.

Lee doesn't arrive until the second scene, but once she's on stage she claims to have hobnobbed with the Nixons, Günter Grass (with whom she had an affair), Princess Diana, Henry Kissinger, Jack Kerouac, James ("Jimmy") Baldwin and Andy Warhol.

And then there's old Freida, who can't stop talking about bowels, diarrhea, suppositories, her rectum, her colonoscopies and her cramps. Put it all together and it adds up to zero — an educated, clinically exact zero perhaps, but zero nonetheless. Because the writing is clever, we're not really bored; but we're far from convinced that Busch, for all his cognizance of who's who and what's where, has anything to say.

Then Act Two starts and suddenly the play is all action. Lee comes on sexually to Ira and, after that, to Marjorie. She tries to get both of them to smoke hash, then seduces them into a ménage a trois. The next day the flustered couple plots to be rid of her — and then their doorman tells them that the human rights group for which Lee is raising money is really a terrorist organization. It's one thing after another, leading us to wonder: Can Marjorie and Ira ever manage to lose Lee? And can they get back the $5,000 that Freida contributed to the "Universal Human Rights Coalition"?

A close look at The Allergist's Wife shows that writer Busch has failed to pin down his main characters. The result is a narrative that's largely incoherent. For example, Marjorie and Ira: Sometimes Busch paints them as pseudo-intellectuals, sometimes as genuine thinkers, sometimes as effete, desiccated members of a superannuated upper class and sometimes as honest, responsible adults genuinely concerned for humanity. And then there's Lee, who at moments appears as a long-overdue agent of joie de vivre, at other times as a radical, anti-Semitic parasite, and briefly (in perhaps the play's most promising moment), as a figment of Marjorie's imagination.

How to explain so many inconsistencies? Allergist's Wife, I propose, is a first draft of a play, the draft that precedes all the hard decisions about who the characters are, which of their characteristics the playwright should delete and which the playwright should conserve. Again, Charles Busch is a clever, at times funny writer, so it's possible to enjoy Act Two in spite of its incongruities. But if you're curious as to why a play written by a celebrated drag artist should end in a way that would please Jesse Helms, don't dig too deeply. This is the first draft, the one with the contradictions.

There's also inconsistency in the acting — the best of which comes from Hersha Parady as Freida and Angela Bond as Lee. Parady's Freida is a wonderfully precise caricature of a complaining Jewish matron, embarrassing her family with little or no effort, saying just the wrong thing at just the wrong time, and in general stimulating pity and rage in the same proportions. Meanwhile, Bond's Lee is persuasively glamorous, self-assured, ebullient and as energetic as poor Marjorie is tuckered out.

Kathi Grau-LeBaron's Marjorie is at moments convincing, but she whines a bit too much and never seems really to be an intellectual. And Petrus Antonius is a very odd Ira, speaking his least important lines as if they were brilliant bons mots, placing odd emphases in his phrasing and not once coming across as a socially conscious doctor who started a clinic for the homeless.

Eric Davis' direction is sensible enough, but the real star of this production is R. T. Williams' beautiful set of an upscale living room with bar, Oriental rugs, fireplace and pricey sofa. This is one of the most attractive sets I've ever seen at a Stageworks production and it contributes significantly to the play's (occasional) effectiveness.

But, oh, what a play: static in one act, dynamic in the next, wonderfully original at some junctures, full of gimmicks at others, featuring characters who stand first for one thing and then, minutes later, for the opposite. It's not often that you'll see such a self-contradicting artifact.

And if you're a name-dropper, this is the show that'll teach you to stop. I mean: Quincy Jones, Lenny Bruce, Andy Griffith, Sylvia Plath, Thomas Mann. What do all these characters have in common?

You're right: next to nothing.

Like The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, they just don't add up.

Heartfelt Hijinks Sean Sanczel's tribute to Ernie Kovacs, The Importance of Being Ernie, is so well meaning, one can almost forget how often it's just not very funny. Clearly Sanczel loves his subject, and one thing he succeeds at is making us respect Kovacs. But a great deal of the play is made up of Kovacs routines that simply don't overwhelm us and jokes that somehow leave our funnybones untickled.

The three actors in the play (Sanczel, Billy Martinez, and Jessica Alexander) do their utmost in multiple roles and there are some particularly clever sequences using three video screens. But in the MTV age — or maybe I should say, in the post-Laugh-In era — these sketches go on way too long, well past the point where we find them comic.

There are, however, some high points — Sanczel as poet Percy Dovetonsils is memorable and a bit wherein all three performers try to squeeze into a TV screen is a lot of fun. But these are easily outweighed by Alexander's overlong Marilyn Monroe impersonation and the spectacle-with-diminishing-returns of three gorillas making music together.

Matters aren't helped by the unattractive backstage set, vaguely furnished with a camera and a desk with a computer monitor. But Jules Bartel's costumes are often nicely original and there are some very funny sound effects, especially in a sequence of "silent" theater.

The most likable scenes involve Martinez playing Craig Alpaugh, the late Tampa theater professional who, together with Sanczel, first conceived the play. And that's what's best about Ernie: author Sanczel's authentic generosity toward Kovacs and Alpaugh. We feel it after only a few minutes of the play, and after the show is over, it's what we take home. If sincerity were enough, this would be terrific theater.

Amazing Asolo The Board of Directors of the Asolo Theatre Company and Florida State University have reached an agreement that will keep the FSU/Asolo Conservatory in Sarasota. At the time of this writing, the Asolo Board had unanimously approved the mediation agreement and FSU is expected to follow suit. Howard Phillips, the newly elected president of the Asolo Board of Directors, said, "This agreement is extremely beneficial for all parties involved and will allow the Sarasota/Manatee community the opportunity to continue to enjoy the Asolo's high quality professional theater while also training the next generation of American actors. We look forward as well to working more closely with the Ringling Center to make this a world-renowned cultural center."

More details next week.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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