Upper Wild Side

If you like down and nasty humor, this is your show

"Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you" goes the old song lyric. In the topsy-turvy world of playwright Charles Busch, that's not a charming sentiment -- it's a direct threat. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife,now running at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, is a modern fable that takes the stylistic and narrative conventions of classic boulevard comedy and weaves in all sorts of subversive insinuations. The result is a theatrical puff pastry that's hilarious, tangy, and a bit rancid.

Busch, who made his name with drag queen spoofs and travesties like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, turns his arch wit on the travails of a thoroughly conventional straight couple, Marjorie and Ira Taub, liberal Jewish New Yorkers living a life of stylish comfort in an expansive apartment on Central Park West. Ira is recently retired from his medical practice to devote his time to helping the less fortunate, while Marjorie is a cultural maven, active in the arts and charity scene. So what's the problem? Turns out Marjorie has taken to spending her days and nights on a living room couch deep in midlife angst. She feels inauthentic, her busy cultural life merely a disguise. Underneath, she complains, "we're still Russian peasants from the shtetl." Her mood isn't helped by her endless battles with her sharp-tongued mother, Frieda, a tottering oldster who lives down the hall. Ira is patient and supportive, but nothing helps Marjorie escape her funk until she encounters one Lee Green, a seductive, svelte woman who happens to be her old elementary schoolmate.

Lee, a world traveler, author, chef, fundraiser, and hobnobber with the rich and famous, is all of Marjorie's fantasies embodied, as sexy, empowered, and dynamic as Marjorie is frumpy, downbeat, and depressed. Marjorie is dazzled by Lee and immediately befriends her. Next thing you know, the re-energized Marjorie has had a style makeover, Lee has moved into the guest bedroom, and what began as a sudden renewal of friendship morphs into sexual adventurism and financial chicanery that leave the Taubs dazed and confused.

Robert Ari is the allergist, with Lauren Klein as wife
Robert Ari is the allergist, with Lauren Klein as wife

Details

By Charles Busch, directed by Carl Andress. With Robert Ari, Shirl Bernheim, Meg Foster, Lauren Klein, and Ariel Shafir. Through November 30. Call 305-442-4000.
The Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy; Miami

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This Taleand its wacky characters have the brittle hilarity of a New Yorker cartoon and the show uses a Roz Chast sketch as poster art. Much of the wit is so New York-centric, a lot of the jokes may set some heads to scratching, as when Marjorie confesses her dilettantism: "Let's say I am no stranger to the New School of Social Research." Much of the real fun comes from an unlikely source, namely the diminutive Shirl Bernheim as Frieda, the utterly hilarious, foul-mouthed mother-from-hell who nearly steals the show from the moment she enters. Frieda's topics of conversation oscillate between vicious critiques of her daughter's failings to elaborate, poetic descriptions of her bowel movements, and Bernheim's deadpan performance is a master class in comedic timing.

She's matched by a crackerjack cast in a fine ensemble effort. Lauren Klein is thoroughly engaging as the self-dramatizing Marjorie, perhaps the most vocal, emotionally indulgent depressive in theater history. Robert Ari finds a lot of comedic nuance in the quieter role of her smug husband, Ira, who is as self-congratulatory as Marjorie is self-deprecating. Meg Foster is terrific as the witchy, husky-voiced Lee, Marjorie's erstwhile pal turned nemesis, and Ariel Shafir delivers solid, low-key backup as a young building doorman who's wiser than his years. Production values are also first-rate: Michael Anania's set design, a tony apartment backed by an expansive Manhattan skyline, hits the right note of upscale style, subtly lit by Eric Nelson in golds and blues. Ellis Tillman's costumes, in a rich saturated palette that favors magenta and green, offer a deft, subversive sense of humor that echoes the play's elfin sensibilities.

But while this Tale is a success, it isn't an unqualified one. Busch's long-time collaborator, Carl Andress, offers effective, crisp staging but he doesn't quite nail the relationship dynamics, several of which lack payoffs. Ira's vanity never seems to register with Marjorie, and Lee's true motives and emotions are never clearly revealed. Some of these weaknesses are structural, with a second act that tends to meander, a flaw not uncommon in Busch's scripts.

There's also a certain cynicism afoot in this comedy, which is often truly, screamingly funny but rather hostile. Busch doesn't seem to love his characters or his audience, for that matter, and it is entirely unclear if he is laughing with or at them. Along with the crude sex and bathroom jokes, there are conventional plot twists and a final statement about family values, the combination of which feels both manipulative and sneering. It's as if, after deliberately provocative characterizations of straights, Jews, and women, Busch figures the audience's assumed bourgeois sentimentalism can be lulled back into approval by tacking on an "up with family" message at the play's end. Hostility isn't necessarily a bad thing in a playwright -- Joe Orton was the master of hostile comedy, but he had the grace to be upfront about it. Busch's successful foray into conventional commercial theater will certainly prompt more mainstream scripts from him, which in turn will force him, sooner or later, to be more candid about his intentions.

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