Linda Lavin. I had to start this review with her name because she makes me laugh so much, and—not irrelevantly—moves me so deeply at the same time. Some actresses can be serious or comic; some can be only one of the two. The rare treasures, like Lavin, can be both at once. Never physically excessive, Lavin pours her whole body into a role. As the title character in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, she gets laughs with her wrist, her shoulder, the tilt of her elbow and the shifting of her foot. In a moment I’m still laughing at in retrospect, she merely unfastens, silently, one button of her blouse. The banal gesture takes one instant, but the way Lavin levers her forearm and sets her chin in that instant explodes the house like a match in an oil tank.
What Lavin does with her body, she can do with her voice. A gifted vocalist (as too few people realize), she has a musician’s control of her tone color and pitch. Pushed by tension—for instance, during the opening scene of this play at a press performance—her top notes take on a dislikable edge, but every lead soprano needs time to warm up, and Lavin’s tone warms up a good deal quicker than that of some Met divas I could name. The oddity is that playwright Charles Busch, who hassculpted so many effective diva roles for himself, starts this one in such a frenzy: The combination of a spiritual crisis and a newly installed chandelier would have made Melba herself shriek off-key.
Busch’s comedy is an odd, ramshackle thing, full of ploys that lead nowhere and loaded material that goes coyly unexplored. At the same time, it’s roaringly, raffishly, outrageously funny, with so many verbal left turns that the plot turns hardly matter. Busch has said the piece began as a burlesque of Albee, with upscale urban Jews replacing the WASPish folk who spout Albee’s high metaphysics. Inevitably, Busch’s characters bring in new cultural materials that drown out the Albee-esque aridity. His main characters, Marjorie Taub (Lavin) and her allergist husband Ira (Tony Roberts), lead a curious double existence: You’re never sure if their stilted, brochure-copy diction comes from the author’s stylistic limitations or the characters’ evasions of reality. Retired Ira, perhaps dodging Marjorie, drowns his life in patients and students; his spouse fills hers by pursuing German Hochkultur as an excuse to wallow in her sense of inadequacy. For relief, she engages in a mild flirtation with the building’s Iraqi doorman, Mohammed (Anil Kumar). The only down-to-earth family member is Marjorie’s mother (Shirl Bernheim), clinging irritably to old age’s bowel problems and blunt crankiness; even her self-image, we learn, is a fictional construct.
Enter the stranger (Michele Lee)—isn’t that how these tales always work?—who purports to be Marjorie’s childhood friend, Lee, who seems to have led the exciting life Marjorie dreams about. She quickly ends up a semipermanent houseguest, introducing the Taubs to gourmet surprises, cutting-edge art, and sexual experimentation. Their guilt over the last kicks in just in time to alert them to Lee’s major skill—removing money from friends’ bank accounts. After which a lot of dubious nonsense about sinister organizations and tigers’ whiskers provides a hasty ending, with all questions left unanswered, but Marjorie improved by Lee’s lessons in creative lying.
Analyzing this for meaning would be futile, like counting the holes in cheesecloth. The porous structure is only there to offer the actors, particularly Lavin and Bernheim, a set of comic opportunities, always edging toward the real world but never melding with it. The flaw in Lynne Meadow’s smooth staging is that its occasional uncertainties give you time to notice the script’s holes. Every culture produces scruffy, saucy, unreal-but-recognizable comedies like this; what most cultures, including ours, rarely have is a Lavin to make the laughter transcendent.
Whether tragedy should provoke laughter is a thorny question, which Elevator Repair Service hasn’t answered by putting Euripides’ Bacchae through its deadpan deconstruction mill. Highway to Tomorrow, as ERS retitles it, seems more like the road to nowhere for the doomed ruling class of what used to be Thebes but is now St. Louis. (Dionysus hails from that exotic eastern land, Philadelphia.) As always, ERS is intelligent and thorough in their scrutiny of the work they’re trashing.
But their thoroughness and knowledge never take them deeply into the action, and never bring it forcefully to us, not even on the issue level, where it’s nothing if not topical. The flat, faintly supercilious tone never varies except when sliding into outright burlesque. Paul, formerly Pentheus (Paul Boocock), and Dionysus (Randolph Curtis Rand) come off as equally blasé guys, speaking lines and whizzing around on office chairs, as if theater were just some impromptu guy thing to do on coffee breaks. The only contrast offered to this is my Voice colleague James Hannaham, as the Chorus, chanting his commentary in a fraught falsetto, his head decked in a black and gold plastic thingummy apparently left over from Aida. As for pity and terror, politics and religion, order and anarchy, and the other antitheses Euripides poured into his great play—don’t count on finding them here. Ironically, the great ironist of Greek tragedy has been out-ironized by ERS’s apathy toward, or maybe suspicion of, the anger behind his ironies. Why, in that case, they wanted to tackle the play is not something I can explain.