Lyric Delivers Smart Comedy With Allergist’s Wife (4 Stars)

‘The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife’ – Written by Charles Busch; Directed by Larry Coen; Scenic Design by Matt Whiton; Costume Design by Mallory Frers; Lighting Design by Chris Bocchiaro; Sound Design by Jack Staid. Presented by The Lyric Stage Company at 140 Clarendon St, Boston, through December 20.

If there is a theme running through Boston Theater this fall, it seems to be the season of the dysfunctional Jewish family. From Speakeasy’s “Bad Jews” to the Huntington’s “Awake & Sing!” and now the Lyric’s very funny “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”, the boards are awash with bickering Jewish clans. And while the characters in “Bad Jews” and “Allergist’s Wife” have strong Jewish identities, the underlying themes are less about their faith than the situations life has put the protagonists in. Such is the case with “Allergist’s Wife”, a sendup of New York intellectualism and its accompanying angst. Penned by Charles Busch, who brought us the over-the-top campy works, “Psycho Beach Party” and “Die Mommie Die”, this is a more mainstreamed effort that still delivers some outrageous situations that provide some titillation as well as some big laughs.

Marjorie Taub (Marina Re) is experiencing a mid-life crisis following the death of her longtime therapist, and is apparently acting out. “Have you heard from the Disney store? Have they decided to drop the charges?” asks her husband, Ira (Joel Colodner) the allergist. It’s the first big laugh of the play and sets the tone for the sometimes absurd humor to follow. Marjorie feels like a failure, because while she has spent her adult life pursuing intellectual avenues, she appears to be more of a consumer of high art and thought rather than one capable of contributing anything of academic or cultural value herself. She is constantly referencing Kafka, Rimbaud, Beauvoir and Hermann Hesse (and you might want to glance at the Cliff Notes for “Siddhartha”, as it is heavily referenced in this play) but she seems to take nothing from them that is useful to her own life. She reminds me of characters from Woody Allen’s late 70’s movies like “Annie Hall” or “Manhattan”, minus the intellectual depth, but just as pretentious.

Her feelings of failure are reinforced by her constantly kvetching mother Frieda (in a nice comic performance by Ellen Colton), who never misses an opportunity to discuss her digestive distress – especially while people are eating. Just as her despair is reaching critical mass, Marjorie’s childhood friend Lillian (Caroline Lawton), appears almost magically at her door and they re-kindle their friendship. She appears to be everything that Marjorie is not. The tall, beautiful Lee (she changed her name after childhood) seems to be a doer while Marjorie lives largely between her own ears. But is Lillian the real deal? She drops names of acquaintances from Andy Warhol to Princess Diana like trees drop leaves in the fall and has allegedly accomplished things that Marjorie only dreams or talks about – like dining with Henry Kissinger or acting in a Fassbinder movie. Part of the fun with this character is trying to decide how much could be real and what is unmitigated BS.

She becomes a household guest and pulls Marjorie out of her self-pity and back into the world by expanding her and her husband’s minds (and bodies) but is her lifestyle too much for this family to incorporate into their own little world?

The performances are pretty solid, with Re deftly handling the role of Marjorie, especially when she explodes when self-righteously describing her experiences as a volunteer or sparring with her needling mother. Colodner is sympathetic as Dr. Taub, the slightly egotistical but philanthropic allergist who clearly adores his wife, despite her faults. The aforementioned Colton earns the biggest laughs in this production, and as Lee/Lillian, Lawton’s performance strengthens as her character transforms from caricature to a fully realized force.

At times the play feels a little like a sitcom, but that is probably to be expected when a playwright that thrives in the outrageous (as Busch does) tries to tone it down for a wider audience. And it does deliver some pretty big laughs. It’s no “Siddhartha” but it certainly works as an entertaining comedy. For more info, go to: