In ‘Allergist’s Wife,’ the performance – not the play – is the thing

By CHRIS HEWITT | chewitt@pioneerpress.com
February 14, 2016 | UPDATED: 4 days ago

I hate to argue with William Shakespeare but the playing’s the thing, not the play, in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” at Minnesota Jewish Theatre.

Charles Busch’s comedy stops short, just when things seem to be getting interesting, but fine performances provide humanity and insight into what is missing from his play. It’s about a depressed Manhattan housewife named Marjorie (Sally Wingert), who takes a break from her many charitable activities to indulge in some “retail terrorism” at a Disney store and to wail, “Who’s going to volunteer to save me?” She gets her answer in the form of a long-lost childhood pal, Lee (Maggie Bearmon Pistner), who shows up at her apartment door one day and may never leave.

Maybe it’s because the cultured Marjorie drops references to so much literature, but there is a sense in “Allergist’s Wife” that, in between the many huge laughs it provides, it is searching for its own meaning just as surely as Marjorie is. She speaks often about her favorite book, “Siddhartha,” and how she relates to its protagonist’s quest for experience and understanding — and why wouldn’t she, since she lives in one of the world’s most populous cities but appears to have no one to talk to her but her inattentive husband (David Coral) and her judgmental mother (Linda Kelsey)? An even more potent reference in the play may be to “Waiting for Godot,” in which characters in an existential crisis wait for help from a character who never arrives.

Lee does arrive in “Allergist’s Wife” and, initially, she seems to be just what Marjorie needs to take her out of her own head. The play raises the idea that Lee may even be some kind of wraith or imaginary friend summoned up by Marjorie because she’s so lonely. But Lee gets Marjorie out of the house with her wild stories about the famous people she supposedly knows and soon begins to hint that she needs money for a charity she may or may not actually represent. I like the idea that Lee is imaginary — and that, perhaps, Marjorie, her husband and mother have all summoned her in a mass delusion to fill the emptiness in their lives — but the play rejects that notion and ends on a note of comfort and reassurance that Marjorie, having begun to re-engage with life, is going to be OK.

It’s in that ending, and in the bizarre treatment of an inexplicable fifth character — a doorman who can fix everything and has convenient knowledge of Lee’s supposed charity — that “Allergist’s Wife” becomes puzzling. By and large, it’s a realistic play that, in many ways, recalls John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” but the climax seems about to spin off in an absurdist direction more like Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves” or Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” both of which take us places that are surprising and weird. Those three are all better plays than “Allergist’s Wife,” which flirts with saying something unusual about the characters — Maybe Marjorie’s self-serving charity work does more harm than good? Maybe Lee’s destructive impulses are the only solution to an out-of-whack world? — but then pulls back to safer territory.

Happily, the cast seems willing to risk everything. Kelsey is hilarious as Marjorie’s mother, Frieda, whose body may be failing but whose mind and tongue remain sharp. I saw the original Broadway production of “Allergist’s Wife,” in which Frieda felt like a caricature of the harpy Jewish mother, but Kelsey — unrecognizable beneath a gray wig and atrocious slacks — locates the pain, and perhaps the cycle of abuse, that lurk underneath her expertly delivered barbs (a look Kelsey gives when Lee suggests Frieda may die soon is both the funniest and saddest moment in the play). Wingert also dives deep beneath the wisecracks, nailing both a lengthy monologue about Marjorie’s causes and the quieter moments when she writhes on her sofa in agony, and Wingert’s fierce intelligence makes even ambivalence seem oddly thrilling. Pistner, too, finds just the right balance between Lee’s charm and her nastiness.

As I drove home from the play, was I recasting those women in “A Delicate Balance,” which would have swell parts for all three of them? Yes. But there’s plenty of interesting material in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” too, and they savor every bit of it.

IF YOU GO

What: “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”

When: Through March 6

Where: Highland Park Community Center Theater, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul

Tickets: $32-$20, 651-647-4316 or taleoftheallergistswife.brownpapertickets.com

Capsule: The play is fun. The three female leads are fantastic.