At Shakespeare & Company: Comic midlife quest

Friday June 15, 2012

LENOX -- Tony Simotes might not be able to get through a serious conversation without a classical Greek reference -- whether about the origins of theater or the linguistic root of a commonly used word.

But the proudly Greek-American artistic director of Shakespeare & Company finds Yiddish terms like "chutzpah" and "mishegas" entering his vocabulary as he discusses "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," the show he's now helming at S&Co.'s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

Written by Charles Busch, the Upper West Side satire enjoyed a successful Broadway run beginning with the 2000 season, and was nominated for three Tony awards, including that for best play. (Busch won an Outer Critics Circle award for playwriting.)

This new production, which began previews this week and has its official press opening tonight, features company veteran Annette Miller in the central role of Marjorie Taub, the titular wife. who enjoys an affluent lifestyle in the New York City arts world, but discovers a gnawing lack of fulfillment later in life. Dealing with the complaints of her mother and the intriguing re-emergence of an old friend, she also just may stumble upon a comically nefarious, international conspiracy.

"She's been running on ideas -- museums, galleries, dance history, concerts. Those are all one thing, but what she's really looking for and she discovers are questions of the soul," says Miller, seated with Simotes in the lobby of the theater, of her character.

Miller is joined by another familiar face in Lenox, Malcolm Ingram, who is trying on a very unfamiliar Upper West Side-styled cadence in place of his natural British accent. S&Co. newcomers Jan Neuberger and Joan Coombs, plus Jules Findlay, who worked his way through the ranks of the company's education programs and into the cast of the Tina Packer-directed production of "The Learned Ladies" this past winter, round out the cast.

A few minutes before this conversation, the team was wrapping up one of its first chances to work in the theater, on-set. Simotes could barely be contained, dashing to the stage to suggest inspired bits of comic business and gently coaxing from Findlay a more emphatic performance without going so far as to suggest specific line readings.

It comes as some surprise that this is Simotes' first time directing Miller, who won an IRNE award for her performance in "Golda's Balcony" and later won acclaim for "Martha Mitchell Calling," two productions that originated in Lenox before successful runs elsewhere. Similarly, though they were both in the cast of the company's 2010 production of "Richard III" (which Simotes was slated to direct, before withdrawing due to illness) and also in the production of "Merchant of Venice" way back at The Mount, this probably marks the closest onstage work between Miller and Ingram.

Simotes says part of his challenge is to successfully create the "world of the play," which is physically set in one apartment but encompasses the wiles of a very particular subset of New York society.

"I love the fact Charles Busch found meaning in almost making fun of the New York scene," he says. "People will go see anything, from plate spinners to an act in the Village of puppets who are doing imitations of the Bolshoi Ballet. It can be outrageous and crazy, but that's what people are trying to discover. He exposes it."

Marjorie, described by New York Times critic Ben Brantley in his review of the original production as a "werewolf doing Greek tra gedy," is a personality of outsized presence who fuels a fast-paced play full of biting zingers and comically ob served social commentary.

"I know her too well," Miller says, when asked if the characters in the play feel familiar to her, "and I'm discovering her only too well. There's parts of me where it's even a little frightening. Yeah -- there but for the grace of God go I. Speaking honestly, if I didn't have theater, I could be her. What Marjorie needs is to be an actress. Then she'd have a place to put all her energy!"

Though the rapid-fire cadences of the play have garnered comparisons to sitcom television, Simotes says the title of the play, and references to literature scattered throughout, lend the proceedings a mythic quality with deeper cultural resonance.

"It's almost as if the play at the beginning would say, ‘And once upon a time, there was a woman who lived on the Upper West Side ,' " he says. "It has that almost fantastical quality about it, because this world becomes real and fantasy at the same time."

What: "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" by Charles Busch.

Who: Shakespeare & Company

When: In repertory now through Sept. 1 (press opening -- tonight, 8:30)

Where: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox

Tickets: $50-$15

How: (413) 637-3353;; at the box office


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