Way back in 2002 I reviewed “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” at the Fisher Theatre, but I left the opening night performance somewhat nonplussed and only mildly amused. Even though Valerie Harper seemed well suited for the title role, something was missing. I suspected I knew what bothered me and why – but my theories were never tested until Saturday night’s opening of the comedy at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield. And what I experienced at the JET far surpassed my earlier encounter in pretty much every way – except for the size of the budget, of course.
Why? For starters, JET’s intimate stage is far more suitable to the script. (Small casts, especially chatty comedies, get lost in large theaters. And at JET, everyone is mere feet away from the action.)
But more importantly, director Christopher Bremer fully grasps the play’s dynamics, and they’re fully realized by a superb team of performers and creative talent. The result, then, is a thoroughly engaging and fun night at the theater!
Conceived by playwright Charles Busch as a vehicle for Linda Lavin – she starred in the original 2000 production at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club – “Tale” tells the story of a Jewish post-menopausal, upper-class New Yorker who’s in the midst of a major mid-life crisis. With an empty nest and a retired husband who spends much of his time lecturing and working at a clinic he founded for the poor, Marjorie Taub has come to the depressing conclusion that she will never be anything more than mediocre – thanks to a voracious appetite for the works of haughty philosophers and trendy high culture entertainment. When her beloved therapist dies suddenly, she snaps, resulting in a rampage at The Disney Store. Now at rock bottom, a knock at the door returns a long-lost childhood friend to her life. Will this globetrotting, name-dropping girlfriend rescue her from her doldrums – or come between her and her husband?
Busch’s script has the feel of a two-hour adult television sitcom. It’s packed with witty one-liners, but the show’s final moments don’t quite work – here or back in 2002. (It sort of meanders along as an afterthought.) However, there’s plenty of juicy meat to bite into – and that’s just what Bremer’s actors do, right from the very start.
That’s especially true of Henrietta Hermelin, who play’s Marjorie’s acerbic mother, Frieda. One of Michigan’s theatrical gems, Hermelin combines carefully chosen vocal characteristics with precise body language to deliver some of the show’s funniest moments. (Her facial expressions are priceless, and her dropping of “the f-bomb” brought down the house at least a couple of times.)
Also spectacular is Lynnae Lehfeldt as Lee Green, who has been everywhere, done everything (and everyone famous) and – according to her – served as the inspiration for much of mid-20th century world history. Just like her character, Lehfeldt swoops in and charms the audience with a sharp, sexy and hypnotic performance.
But the show belongs to an actress who keeps threatening – promising? – to quit the stage, but keeps returning in knockout roles. From her first line to her last, Kate Willinger wears Marjorie’s soul as her own. She creates a fully realized and sympathetic character, as every thought and emotion are beautifully conveyed. And her work opposite Hermelin and Lehfeldt couldn’t be better.
The show’s two male characters are there primarily to help move the plot along. Phil Powers’ low-key, understated performance as Ira Taub is the perfect contrast to Willinger’s Marjorie. And Scott Norman is fine as the doorman Mohammed.
If Monika Essen’s gorgeous set looks familiar, it was also seen in JET’s previous show, “The Big Bang.” Since both shows coincidentally take place in a fancy, expensive New York apartment, why not connect the plays via the apartment’s owners? (A large painting over the mantel first seen in “The Big Bang” telegraphed who the owners are!) And in a rare reaction to a set, “oohs and ahs” were heard throughout the audience when the kitchen faucet actually produced running water!
‘The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife’
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Wednesday-Sunday through Feb. 21. $28-$36. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org.