'Allergist's Wife' rises to a challenge
Charles Busch's wise comedy The Tale of the Allergist's Wife might be described as subversive sitcom: It clips along in a familiar rhythm, telling its story of a depressed Manhattan matron whose life is invaded by a childhood pal, then sails right into matters that light entertainment won't go near. Group sex? Nervous breakdowns? The play zigs and zags, unafraid of ambiguous, messy resolutions.
Yet it's likely nothing prepared the veteran Bucks County Playhouse cast - Marsha Mason, Marilu Henner, David Garrison - for the curveball of an ailing key cast member's being replaced at the opening after a single rehearsal.
When Lynn Cohen, cast as the play's ultra-cranky Jewish mom, lost her voice at the last minute, first-time director Boyd Gaines - also an accomplished actor - got her through preview performances by reading her lines as she mouthed them onstage. But much as the audience reportedly enjoyed the gender confusion (also in the spirit of playwright Busch), Emily Jon Mitchell assumed the role at Saturday's opening with heroic spirit and script in hand.
So critics probably saw something broader than what audiences are getting in subsequent performances. Far from being tentative, Mitchell played the show with combative spirit - often matched by the actors around her - that showed what sort of sociological specimen her character is, but without the specificity this script encourages.
Mason's distressed allergist's wife was a bit surface-y, too, though not nearly as tightly wound as Linda Lavin, who originated the role. Mason was more endearingly needy, a girl who never grew up because she was always retreating from who she really was. The character's personality is a catalog of the books and plays she has ingested; Mason played her as if there were a genuine life to be had there, just not a complete one. Also, Mason's singular talent for line readings full of sincerity but intriguingly inconclusive - as if her character didn't know her mind - was put to good use. With luck, she'll return to this role in the future.
Garrison (as her husband) and Henner (the worldly old friend who appears out of the blue) moved through their roles with catlike grace suggesting the seeds of their sexual attraction, though their increasingly close proximity revealed who they really are: He's everything he appears to be; she is anything but.
Playing someone who seems to have been everywhere and done everything, Henner delivered the most finished characterization, projecting an exterior magnetism with the mercenary coldness of a grifter. In unguarded moments, her heavily mascaraed eyes, haunted and hunted, were those of someone who has lived by genius-level wits but is going for big financial gains as time runs out. She'll give you something to think about on the drive home from New Hope.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.