Charles Busch’s muse, an aging actress in Kips Bay, channels high and low, uptown and down
Everyone knows the New York theater scene is divided up between Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, even if there's some bickering about their precise meaning. Less well known is another theatrical-geographical division, maybe subconscious, that carves up what you might call "serious" work, between uptown's established talent roster and downtown's edgier, more emergent theater bunch.
By either reckoning, Charles Busch has always swung both ways. With his gender-bending film parodies (including last season’s delightful and daffy Divine Sister) playing downtown and his sly comedies of manners (such as The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) playing uptown.
Olive and the Bitter Herbs, currently playing on East 59th Street, definitely falls into the second category. But it bridges the gap between the two styles with its madcap second act, which recalls the breathless pacing of his best "downtown" work.
The "Olive" in the title of his new play Olive and the Bitter Herbs is Olive Fisher, whose claim to fame is that she was the “give me the sausage” woman in a series of memorable commercials decades before the play's contemporary setting. The "bitter herbs" are what the aging actress serves her ill-fated Seder guests in the play. The meal of course, but also the relentless and impossible bitterness that comes out of her mouth in the course of the play.
Actor Marcia Jean Kurtz makes sure in her portrayal that everyone around Olive suffers with her, including her doting friend Wendy (Julie Halston), a gay couple next door named Robert and Trey (David Garrison and Dan Butler), and a potential suitor with the unlikely moniker of Sylvan (Richard Masur).
Instead of the cultured Upper West Side residents of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, we get Olive, washed up in a rent-controlled apartment in Kips Bay, which she describes as being notable for its “great abundance of dry cleaners."
Here's some of the downtown: All of Olive's friends might have walked out on her a long time before if it hadn't been for an ornate mirror, which seems to have magical properties. Olive sees a man in the mirror, and everyone wants a peek, thinking he might have answers for them or a message from the beyond.
This sounds a little like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, but don’t expect an apparition. (Busch already used one, to great comedic effect, in another of his uptown comedies, You Should Be So Lucky.) Nobody else can see the phantom, so it’s possible that it’s a figment of Olive’s overactive imagination. After all, she’s also certain that Robert and Trey are trying to drive her crazy with the scent of artisanal cheeses.
Garrison and Butler make a plausible and funny middle-aged gay couple, and their shameful but persistent upper-class pretensions, which they take care to point out in each other, are where a lot of the jokes come from.
The gangly Halston, whom you'll recognize as a regular in Busch's plays, including The Divine Sister, is all knees and elbows in her usual sidekick role, which she fills out with gusto. Masur is nice and avuncular as Olive’s potential paramour, but delivers his lines with a bit too much deliberation to deliver the humor Busch has put into them.
But Busch wrote Olive and the Bitter Herbs with Kurtz in mind, and you can see why. It’s a difficult role, as Olive doesn’t let up on the kvetching until the last scene. Kurtz keeps the volume turned up, but now and then lets the audience see her sensitive side.
That's why we stay in our seats and stick with Olive until the last scene, even as the characters on the stage throw their hands up in frustration and manage an exit.
Busch’s play doesn’t have a whole of plot, so Mark Brokaw, by no means a stranger to these kinds of plays, maneuvers quickly from one punchline to the next; that's the way to direct this play, since these lines are as funny as anything Busch has ever written.
The set by Anna Louizos calls to mind the lookalike living rooms of dozens of different television comedies, also the right call: Busch’s play takes as a sort of leitmotif the well-worn conventions of the sitcom (oddball neighbors, kooky friend, and an irascible but finally lovable central character) and shakes them up a bit.
It couldn’t be a coincidence that almost all the actors are fondly remembered for their roles in TV classics like That Girl and Frasier.
Some critics will describe this as one of Busch’s more mainstream works, possibly even a part of his "uptown" oeuvre, but that seems to be missing the point a bit. The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife attracted a wide audience, but so did Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which was one of the longest running plays in off-Broadway history. And that may be the secret of Busch's ability to work in both districts: His fiercely loyal fans never really care where his plays are performed, and his converts from both kinds of plays, nowadays, happily travel to see all of them.
The Primary Stages production of Olive and the Bitter Herbs is playing at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue. Tickets are available at 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.