In high school, I had a teacher who called her quizzes “quizzicals,” as in “Now we’re going to have a little quizzical.” (I know what you’re thinking, but she called her tests “examinations.” Sorry.) So, if this were a Dramaturgy 101 class, we would now be having a little quizzical on the subject of Charles Busch’s new play, as follows:
1. Is The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (a) funny, or (b) meaningful?
2. In the context of the story, is the heroine’s long-lost childhood friend who turns up out of nowhere (a) real, or (b) a fantasy projection? (If the latter, don’t forget that everyone else onstage acknowledges her existence, or pretends to.)
3. Which of the following characters is a mythomane? (a) The heroine, (b) her childhood friend, (c) the Iraqi doorman, who talks about his architect father and his summers in Tuscany.
4. Which of the following has been invented by the author to show the heroine’s inability to deal with real life? (a) Her fondness for Hermann Hesse, (b) her elderly mother’s bowel problems, (c) her smashing of Disney figurines.
5. Which of the following conflicts is treated most superficially and has least relevance to the action? (a) Jews and Muslims, (b) Jews and German culture, (c) Americans and terrorism, (d) global capitalism and the individual.
6. Which of the following improbable phenomena has been invented by the author to underscore the play’s illusory nature? (a) Dr. Kevorkian, (b) the Internet, (c) BAM, (d) allergists who give patients their pager number.
7. Which motive looms largest in the heroine’s ultimate expulsion of her long-lost friend? (a) Sexual confusion, (b) tiger whiskers, (c) financial fraud, (d) the friend’s link to a sinister international organization, (e) Günter Grass.
8. Finally, which answer to question 1 above would have allowed you to skip the six following questions?
The last answer, of course, is (a) funny. For all its allusions, which run the gamut of 20th-century nightmares from anomie to zymosis, plus the gamut of cultural phenomena from Anaheim to Bettelheim, the principal function of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is to be (a) funny, at which it mightily succeeds. That it barely makes an ounce of sense, even provisionally, while wending its (a) funny way across the stage is not the point—not even here in Dramaturgy 101, where we like to stress the importance of a play’s being (b) meaningful, to say nothing of (c) coherent. Those qualities are major contributors to the life of the theater, no doubt of it, “but jack you’ll never lack if you can quack like a duck,” as a great American theater artist once remarked. The gift of being able to make people laugh isn’t always attached to the ability to create meaning; the two may even be actively opposed at times.
Charles Busch, as a writer, can make people laugh. Put an actress as vivid and creative as Linda Lavin onstage in a script of his, and the laughter can be very loud indeed. What Lavin creates, in a situation like this, is less a character than a persona, not a specific New York woman whom one could imagine married to a practicing physician, but the essence of every married woman who feels trapped in her own inadequacies, a bundle of nerves that jangle with every move like a set of dissonant wind chimes. Only Lavin has what theater people call “size,” so imagine the wind chimes as sonorous as Big Ben, retuned by Schoenberg.
She’s ably supported, too, in Lynne Meadow’s tidy, non-interfering production, which declines to push for the meanings that aren’t there, and trusts her knowing comedians to time the detonating laughs without fuss. Michele Lee is sweetly noncommittal as the imaginary friend. Tony Roberts, who in recent seasons has often seemed tetchy and distracted onstage, gives a relaxed, full performance as Lavin’s bemused husband; Anil Kumar handles the doorman’s brief role skillfully; and tiny Shirl Bernheim, as Lavin’s resentful mother, packs more ferocity per square inch than most action movies.
You’ll need different dramaturgic tools for Sueño, José Rivera’s free-contemporary adaptation of Calderón de la Barca’s masterpiece, Life Is a Dream. The original’s set in Poland, Sueño in Seville; characters who used to come from Muscovy now come from Poland. Apart from moving the play one step closer to our landmass, Rivera has turned some of its offstage violence into the onstage comic-strip kind—Calderón’s taste for grotesquerie didn’t extend to having us watch his hero juggle gouged-out eyeballs—and has taken its poetry on a jazzy roller-coaster ride that includes some resplendent climbs and some stomach-shifting downward lurches into banal anachronism. What he wanted to do, other than turn a great philosophic parable into tossed word-salad, is anyone’s guess; study the chapter on “tonal relations” in your textbooks before heading for Rivera’s script.
When Rivera hews to the gravity of his source, you get an event that has Calderón’s complex mixture of elements in exciting balance; at other times, you get something between Classic Comics and bad camp, heightened by director Lisa Peterson’s apparent inability to notice that each of her actors is busily overstating in a different style. Since most of them are familiar figures who don’t carry on this way under other directors, Peterson is clearly the problem. Her visual metaphors—in which war turns into flamenco mixed with chair waving—are as capricious in their shifts as Rivera’s flashy diction. Those of you who think this is a helpful way to echo the source play’s vision of life’s arbitrary nature should reread the section in your textbooks on “imitative fallacy.”
Because you’ve all listened so attentively, your reward is an extra research assignment, on a truly capricious and fascinating subject: Find out everything you can about the life of John Treville LaTouche (1914-1956), one of the more extraordinary figures to drift through the musical theater in the last century. Touche, as he was known for most of his adult life, was a lyricist who made brilliance seem offhand, and an idea man with an astounding knack for what would become insanely popular after he’d lost interest in it. He was also a born bringer-together of people, with a repressed Southern child’s traditional enthusiasm for adult toys like sex, drugs, and alcohol. He first made his name with the 13-minute cantata “Ballad for Americans,” for which he was duly blacklisted after it became a leftist byword. Next he turned to offbeat commercial musicals for stars like Ethel Waters and Eddie Cantor, all the while sneaking off to write cabaret material about surrealists who married bearded ladies, or girls with prefabricated hearts. He turned Homeric epic into American pop art with Jerome Moross, remade Gay’s Beggar’s Opera as a Harlem extravaganza with Duke Ellington, wrote a sizable chunk of Bernstein’s Candide, and capped the lot, before his death, by writing the libretto for one of the few enduring American operas, Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe. His triumphs, few of which made money, alternated with searing disasters. (The usually genial Louis Kronenberger said, about the script for one of his quicker thuds, “This book could curdle the millennium.”)
Only a few of us obsessives have ever heard of Touche, so the York Theatre’s Taking a Chance on Love is a good and necessary thing. It ought to be better—it proves that he left enough material behind to fill a dozen lively revues—but the show seems to have a hard time keeping up with its facile-tongued hero: Though Janet Watson’s choreography gives the cast some amusingly fancy footwork, the overall air is stodgy and static. Still, the evening proffers a lot of the incredible data of Touche’s life (somebody had better publish his diaries, quick), and a reasonable selection from the treasure house of his songs. Each member of the four-person cast gets at least one number that’s a perfect fit, but three of the four are also saddled with material far from their range. The glorious exception is Eddie Korbich, who, playing Touche, gets the steepest challenges and hurdles them all stupendously, without an instant of flagging energy or the slightest scrape on his gleaming vocal tones. Even if you knew all the data and hated all the songs—both of which are impossible—he’d be reason enough to stay through the show and cheer.