LENOX -- Marjorie Taub, the central character in Charles Busch's sly, wicked, if also somewhat overwritten, comedy, "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," has a flair for self-dramatization. It's how she survives.
As Busch's play -- which is being given a crisp, clean, smoothly choreographed, heartily played production in Shakes peare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre -- begins, Marjorie (Annette Miller, who takes the measure, and then some, of Marjorie in a smart, bold, go-for-broke performance that, I suspect, will become more finely tuned as the run progresses) is supervising the installation of a chandelier in the living room of the Upper West Side New York co-op apartment she shares with her husband, Ira (an absolutely sublime Malcolm Ingram), a retired allergist who immodestly is spreading the wealth of his knowledge through a clinic for the homeless he has established and basks in the adoration of the college students whom he teaches.
From a material point of view, Marjorie has a good, secure life. Money seems not to be an issue. She goes to museums, concerts, theater, lectures -- all the culturally "right" things. She immerses herself in the writings of Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and her hero, Herman Hesse. She has tried her hand, unsucessfully, at writing her own novel. Now, frustrated, depressed, at a dead end and mourning the death of her therapist, Marjorie is in the midst of the mother of all midlife crises.
It doesn't help that her mother, Frieda (Joan Coombs who skillfully keeps things just this side of caricature), who lives just down hall from Marjorie and Ira, continually barges in on the two -- undermining Marjorie's wilted self-confidence and regaling them with the latest reports on her digestive tract woes.
Hope and opportunity knock on Marjorie's apartment door in the form of a woman who has come to look at Marjorie and Ira's apartment in the mistaken (perhaps) belief it is available. The woman turns out to be a childhood friend, Lillian Greenblatt, now Lee Green, whom Marjorie hasn't seen in 40 years.
Like some extreme Auntie Mame, the namedropping, globetrotting Lee (Shakespeare & Company newcomer Jan Neuberger in a compelling, shrewdly constructed performance), who is raising money for an activist group that may or may not be a terrorist organization, insinuates herself into the Taubs' life, making herself indispensable, expanding their field of possibilities, especially Marjorie's, intellectually, artistically, sexually.
At one point, Ira suggests that Lee is a figment of his wife's imagination, created out of Marjorie's desperate emotional situation. It's a whimsical, tantalizing notion which, at the same time, strikes at a familiar theme throughout Busch's plays -- the ways in which, in order to gain strength, we invent ourselves, invent our lives, or portions of our lives, to the extent that invention and reality become one.
Even as Busch nudges his characters here toward the buoyant melodramatic excess that marks his style, Busch's atypically naturalistic "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" holds a finely tuned balance, kept there by Simotes' smooth, understanding direction and his skillful cast. Not that Busch makes it easy. "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" buckles somewhat a little more than midway through the first act and, like Marjorie, very nearly wears out its welcome, only to recover in high style after intermission.
As Ira, Ingram perfectly catches the man's boyishness, his authority, his vulnerabilities, his manliness, his charm. He and Miller work seamlessly together. Neuberger, with her beautifully constructed performance, fits perfectly between and with them.
The production's pacing is unwavering; its rhythm keen and nuanced. Particularly impressive is the production's physicality -- how sharply defined Busch's characters are not only by Esther Van Eek's costuming but, even more so, by their movements -- their bodies as a whole; hands, fingers, hips; the ways in which they move toward and away from each other. Truth not only in words but in theatrical deed as well.
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