In the midst of a midlife crisis, National’s Alergist’c Wife

Who could have guessed? The reigning diva of off-Broadway fare like “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and “Psycho Beach Party” is actually a man. Charles Busch, the cross-dressing grand dame of transsexual satire is trying his hand at writing conventional situational comedy with the touring production of his Broadway play “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which is playing at the National Theatre through March 23.

True, much of the humor is in the “Must See TV” vein. But thanks to a gradual crescendo of a performance by Valerie Harper as the wife of a retired Manhattan allergist, the production gains a heady momentum even once it begins to lose steam.

Marjorie Taub is an Upper West Side Jewish matron in the middle of a mid-life crisis. She busies herself with various volunteer activities and reads the canon of great works of literature, seeking meaning and essence in an otherwise empty life. Her daughters have grown and distanced themselves–emotionally as well as geographically–and her therapist has recently died. Marjorie discovers she is trapped in her suffocating role as wife. It takes a visit from a seductive visitor from the past to strip Taub of her insecurities and reveal her inner sexual and intellectual adventurer.

Harper is a force of nature in the part of Marjorie; she blows wildly around the tastefully decorated apartment–with arms flailing and voice howling–like a gale in search of an ocean to stir. And yet she never crosses the line into caricature, she never strikes a false note.

Her supporting cast–all charmers at times–could use a bit of fine-tuning. Each has at least a few moments of inspired comic spark. Performances of note are Sondra James as Marjorie’s sardonically scatological mother and Jana Robbins as the mysterious Lee.

“Allergist’s Wife” is lightweight entertainment, without question. It doesn’t know what to do with itself by the end and many of its one liners need rhythmic adjustment. But Busch’s show deserves the thunderclap of laughter it works so hard to earn.

On opening night, most audience members of a certain age were curiously reserved. Many women groaned disdainfully at some of Taub’s domestic outbursts. This was nearly as fascinating as the show, the irony being that I noticed several “Marjorie Taubs” sitting superciliously, with their noses in the air, their purses clutched securely against their sable-swathed bosom, and their own mid-to-late-life crises resonating almost audibly in the hollows between their bejeweled ears.

The enigmatic Lee makes the observation that her hosts live in a jewel box of an apartment, which could also be a euphemism for the play itself. “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” is a treasure trove of blissful farce–sure, some of the comic gems need polishing–but none can be mistaken for fool’s gold.

“Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” is showing at the National Theater through March 23.

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