“I have ambiguities that you have yet to fathom!” angrily shouts overeducated, understimulated Marjorie to her husband, Ira, a retired ear-nose-and-throat doctor. By all rights, many audiences should find Marjorie supremely annoying: She’s a white, affluent college graduate who lives in a fashionable Upper West Side Manhattan apartment and has way too much time on her hands. In the midst of a mid-life crisis triggered by the death of her beloved therapist, she feels her existence is devoid of meaning and searches desperately for a fulfillment she can’t quite name. Marjorie’s woes are very bourgeois, very First World, so why should ticketbuyers want to spend two hours with her?
Because she’s played by the remarkable Cindee Mayfield, an actor who can locate soul and sympathy in even the most privileged whiner, as she proves in Theatre Arlington’s superb production of Charles Busch’s comedy The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. Mayfield is surrounded by an equally talented cast, whose members, under the nimble direction of Andy Baldwin, turn a fairly light script into a very funny, heartfelt odyssey of personal discovery.
Playwright Busch is perhaps best known to mainstream audiences as the queeny “prison bitch” in the HBO show Oz, but he’s been a much admired New York drag performer and widely produced playwright since his first play, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, became a hit back in 1984. Busch’s brand of cross-dressing has never been of the mean-spirited variety. He has often created female characters (played by himself) who yearn for personal and social transcendence, even if they’ve been featured in broadly comic creations such as Red Scare on Sunset and Die, Mommie, Die! Though it’s Busch’s most mainstream script, Allergist’s Wife enjoyed a hugely successful Broadway run in 2000, but it’s not dumbed down or lacking in outrageous elements. While the tone of the show is more sober than his previous campfests, the themes are relatively more serious, and the lead character of Marjorie was, for the first time, written to be played by an actual female actor.
In Theatre Arlington’s staging, the allergist’s wife is rescued from her existential funk by Lee (Brandi Andrade), a globe-trotting, name-dropping sophisticate whom Marjorie hasn’t seen since they were childhood friends in the Bronx. The beguiling Lee, who’s become a fund-raiser for a somewhat mysterious international human rights group, appears unexpectedly at Marjorie’s door and injects her dreary life with a shot of intellectual glamour. Marjorie’s mother Frieda (Barbara Bierbrier), a chronic complainer who likes to discuss constipation and other “indignities of old age” in uncomfortable detail, is instantly suspicious of Lee: “She’s the kind who turns her nose up at you while she’s kissing your ass,” Frieda says.
Mohammed (Stephen Warren), the apartment building doorman reluctantly drawn into the situation, also has his doubts about the global charity work performed by Lee’s organization. Husband Ira (Elias Taylorson) has been so busy with medical school teaching and charity work for low-income patients, he hasn’t had much time to help Marjorie deal with her intense feelings of worthlessness. But he too is attracted to Lee — and her stories of hobnobbing with Andy Warhol (“I used to have bowls of soup with him”), Princess Diana, and Henry Kissinger. Without giving away too much, the exotic Lee indeed turns out to be transformative for Marjorie but in very unexpected ways.
Director Baldwin obviously knows he’s guiding a cast of theatrical pros, because the pace he establishes is relaxed and naturalistic rather than manic. (Given that he’s worked a lot in the recent abundance of door-slamming farces on area stages, this leisurely tone is most welcome.) But the show is far from sluggish, thanks to in-the-pocket characterizations that live and breathe spontaneously and make you care about what happens next. As Lee, the voluptuous Andrade makes brainy liberal politics seem sexy (no small feat). Her character’s impressive powers of persuasion are utterly convincing. Bierbrier, who’s made a long North Texas stage career out of playing Jewish mothers, is a delightful if foul-mouthed curmudgeon and can make audiences laugh just by saying things like “My mind is agog!” Taylorson expertly mines the smug undercurrents of Ira, a philanthropic doctor who enjoys his saintly status in the community maybe a little too much.
As for Mayfield, she makes Marjorie’s yearning for purpose in this tony Manhattan milieu not only credible but universal and occasionally even heartbreaking. Though it’s only January, I’m going to predict that you won’t see a better cast in any North Texas production this year than the one Theatre Arlington has assembled for The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. Thanks to their work, this production is smart and often barbed but extremely gentle and generous at heart –– a rare and precious combination in any show.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife
Thru Feb 3 at Theatre Arlington, 305 W Main St, Arlington. $19.