Bitterer than the horseradish on her Passover plate, the heroine of Charles Busch’s amiably rickety new comedy, Olive and the Bitter Herbs (Primary Stages), is no tasty dish. A New York actress of modest success, edging resentfully toward her golden years with a half-forgotten marriage and a spotty career behind her, Olive Fisher (Marcia Jean Kurtz) cherishes little in life except her large, lovingly assembled collection of injustices. Olive, quite simply, is a super-kvetch, in the epic tradition of the immigrant grandmothers who vented their dissatisfaction with every aspect of American life by muttering, in Yiddish, “a curse on Columbus.”
Whatever opinion you share, Olive will contradict it; whatever sorrow you’re lamenting, she’s got one to trump it. She’s not easy to like: Kurtz, an artist with a special line in tender vulnerability, needs all the warmth she can summon up for us to find Olive bearable. That we even find her somewhat sympathetic is a small miracle on the actress’s part. To Olive, her neighbors are walking nightmares, particularly her offstage nemesis, the co-op board president, and two onstage invaders, the gay couple next door (David Garrison and Dan Butler), whose fondness for “artisanal” cheeses regularly reeks through her apartment’s thin walls. Olive even resents her modest fame, won as it was through a tacky TV commercial. Not that you can blame her: What serious actress would enjoy being stamped for life as the “gimme the sausage” lady?
Olive has, however, another, more mystical aspect: People who cross her path become involved with her in what the characters in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle would call a karass—a sort of psychic tangle that pulls them all inexplicably into her orbit. Along with the gays next door, Olive’s strange brand of negative magnetism has drawn in her one loyal friend, Wendy (Julie Halston), a theatrical management type with a private penchant for managing her elders’ lives, and a soft-spoken widower, Sylvan (Richard Masur), whose daughter is Olive’s enemy number one, the co-op board president. Mild-mannered Sylvan, three times a widower, finds abrasive Olive appealing (she tells him she has no desire to become “the fourth Mrs. Bluebeard”); the other three are attracted not only to her but to an inexplicable presence that haunts her living-room mirror.
By some vague telepathy, Olive has ascertained that this dimly glimpsed presence’s name may be Howard. And, in due course, everybody onstage except Sylvan proves to have been involved with the same Howard during his lifetime, and to have had said involvement altered by long-ago actions of Olive’s. Such things happen when old-style comedies of this kind flirt with the supernatural. Busch, who has always had a nostalgic eye for the traditional Broadway patterns, wisely doesn’t hammer away at the form in a self-defeating effort to make it look new. Like his aging characters, he goes in with a gentle, rueful awareness that the past is past, and the present is whatever we can salvage from it while moving on.
His one shortcoming as a writer—odd for an artist who in his own stage appearances performs with such bold precision—is an uncertainty of touch. In an out-and-out parody like the recent The Divine Sister, he has no qualms, but in neo-antique comedies, like this one and The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, with their naturalistic New York apartment sets, an element of caution seeps into his tone. The ghost in Olive’s mirror, like the mysterious cult with its tiger-whiskers poison in Allergist’s Wife, never quite becomes a force in the dramatic action, even though the action depends on it. Busch has trouble, too, bringing his story to a natural close, leaning on two key characters’ sudden, unlikely changes of heart.
But all this merely means that his likeable, low-key comedy doesn’t go to the head of its class, instead staying cheerfully around the middle rank. Director Mark Brokaw gives him an appropriately cheerful, easygoing production, with a cast in which everybody is about as appealing as they can get: Halston bright-toned and edgy; Butler’s brashness elegantly balanced by Garrison’s jittery efforts at palliation; Masur as sweetly soothing as melted butter. Even Olive’s bitter verbs, flavored by Kurtz with Chekhovian rue, come off endearingly.