Written by Charles Busch
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Produced by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, New York City, through September 3, 2011

As a playwright and genre parodist, Charles Busch often seizes on the darnedest corners of popular cultural kitsch. His latest work, “Olive and the Bitter Herbs,” is a rare outing in which he does not appear as a performer, in or out of drag, and like the previous example of same – the long-running Broadway hit “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” – it is a super-New-York-y living-room comedy that toys with elements of farce and magic. “Olive” could only come from the hand of a writer who grew up in the 1960s with daffy sitcoms like “Bewitched,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” which had their own precedents in the zanier aeries of Hollywood B-movie entertainments.

Olive (played by the bravely unsparing Marcia Jean Kurtz) is an elderly actress in semi-retirement, an “ethnic sight gag” regrettably best-known for appearing in a widely circulated TV commercial (“Gimme the sausage!”). Suspicious, opinionated, and misanthropic, she’s mostly homebound after a couple of strokes and attended by a cheerful do-gooder named Wendy (Julie Halston) who specializes in difficult old biddies. The last renter in a building that’s gone co-op, she seethes with enmity toward her neighbors, especially the gay guys next door, Robert (David Garrison) and Trey (Dan Butler), whose baked artisanal cheeses reek into her apartment making her nauseous, and the president of the board, whose kind widowed father Sylvan (Richard Masur) comes calling. The visitors each fall under the spell of a magic mirror in Olive’s apartment, in which she alone sees a ghost named Howard with whom she’s fallen in love and to whom other characters turn out to have connections.

David Garrison, Dan Butler, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Richard Masur, and Julie Halston

To say that these characters’ comings and goings are contrived is not to register criticism but merely to place its literary genre. The robust and intricate plot with its perfunctory plausibility serves as a framework for Busch’s energetic stream of wisecracks, one-liners, and topical diatribes. He wanders down a reckless assortment of digressive alleyways, some of them unabashedly New York-centric, as when Trey reports an altercation in a Judaica shop (they don’t have those in Des Moines). He’s not afraid of overdoing the Jewish humor; this is the kind of play in which “Tovah Feldshuh” is a punchline all by itself, in the midst of a seder that goes comically off the rails. (My favorite line, referring to Wendy, a pro-Semitic wannabe: “If she wants to be a Jew, for Christ’s sake, let her be a Jew!”) 

Although entertaining enough and chock full o’ laughs, “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” winds up disappointing because Busch sketches out these intriguing characters but then leaves them stranded as comic-strip stick figures. After a while, it’s difficult to keep caring for characters when they repeatedly refuse to respond like recognizable humans and settle for sitcom shtick. It’s definitely true that life is full of unlikeable characters who nevertheless emanate a perversely brutal sort of charisma. And lord knows we all know plenty of odd couples. (I saw a woman on the subway once wearing a button that said “Cold insensitive bitch seeks kind warm-hearted man for love/hate relationship.”) Still, Olive is such an unrelievedly hostile curmudgeon that it’s impossible to comprehend why anyone would put up with her longer than ten minutes, let alone lavish on her the kind of devotion that Wendy and Sylvan do. And she’s not the only one who surpasses understanding: Trey is a such a loud, drunken pissy queen that Robert’s forbearance starts to look more pathological than I think it’s supposed to. The character is meant to be abrasive and annoying, and that’s exactly how Dan Butler, bless his heart, plays him. He’s more than a little excruciating. 

The actors are all excellent stage veterans but under Mark Brokaw’s direction their performances all felt pushed hard, as if hoping that comic exaggeration would paper over leaps in emotional believability. I would say that for about half the audience, including me, that wasn’t enough, although I admire Busch’s ambitions and the quirky freedom he allows himself as a writer. The other half of the audience screamed their heads off and enjoyed every minute, and I guess that’s who Busch cannily writes for.

CultureVulture.net, August 30, 2011