Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


This review was a long time coming — at least two days later than I intended to post. Unfortunately, the extra time hasn't softened my frustration with this show. Don't get me wrong, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife isn't a bad production: for me, bad outings inspire malaise, not agitation. Instead, the conviction that's nagged at me since I left the Jewish Ensemble Theatre is that this one could and should have been better.

Charles Busch's plot-driven script concerns Marjorie Taub (Kate Willinger), who we meet in the throes of lamentation of the "idle rich" variety. She's bereft at the death of her therapist, and all the graduate-level literature and culture in the world can't shake off the sense that her life took a wrong turn somewhere. Enter Lee Green (Lynnae Lehfeldt), a childhood friend turned world-traveling mover and shaker, littering the scene with dropped names. However, suspicion quickly builds in Marjorie's husband, Ira (Phil Powers), and her mother, Frieda (Henrietta Hermelin); as immersed in Lee's world as Marjorie has become, no one else has even lain eyes on the woman — a conflict that comes to a head in a snappy and perfectly paced scene at the end of the first act. The second act shifts gears to examine a relationship that turns toxic, and the ending is predictably preachy-cathartic.

Under the direction of Christopher Bremer, what appears to be missing is a clear point of view. Stranded in the no-man's land between knee-slapping comedy and journey of self discovery, I didn't laugh all that often, nor was I moved to care for the characters. In fact, what helped the first-act closer to succeed was how easy it was to believe that no person would ever willingly interact with Marjorie. Such was the deep unpleasantness of the main character: piteous, superior, and abrasive to her husband and mother, essentially beyond redemption. Moreover, most of the actors failed to connect; it's a bad sign, in a show that takes an unexpectedly risqué turn, that the most pleasing and natural chemistry was the bond between mother- and son-in-law. A final complaint regards the dozens of line flubs and stuttered do-overs by most of the cast, which were blatant enough to remove me from the moment repeatedly and should have been stamped out well before the opening.

These shortcomings are especially disappointing in light of the production's strengths. As Marjorie's bowels-obsessed mother, Hermelin is a scream — her unbelievable candor and occasional use of the F-word are sure to make her an audience favorite. Powers does his best work interacting with Hermelin, providing a grounded take on a functional in-law relationship. Lehfeldt is captivating in small doses and larger than life, just enough so to seem too good to be true, exactly what her character needs to be. In a bold and clever choice, the set by Monika Essen is a holdover from the previous production, The Big Bang (in which the characters were revealed to be trespassing); although the apartment isn't treated like a child's play set this time, returning audiences may appreciate this inside joke.

Overall, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife has a lot to recommend it; many will appreciate Hermelin's outstanding work and the fast-moving story, which keeps the audience on its toes in its brief-seeming two hours. Yet there are myriad flaws that keep this production from excelling, some more overt than others. I hope that the repetition of performance can help bring some needed polish later in the run.


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