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Nothing to Sneeze At 

Intellectual pretension and the nothingness of being play for laughs in Allergist's Wife

Marjorie Taub is a remarkably lucky woman. She shares an elegant Upper West Side condo with her patient, successful husband, Ira, a retired ear-nose-and-throat man who now runs an allergy clinic for the homelss and serves as a mentor for the next adoring generation of allergists. She's college-educated--business, unfortunately--but is a middle-aged woman of leisure, spending her days going to art museums and lectures, and gorging on German literature and philosophy. Her doorman is a handsome young Iraqi with whom she can discuss Nadine Gordimer.

Yet Marjorie is a remarkably unhappy woman. A desperate cultural omnivore, she is only too aware of her own intellectual mediocrity. Nobody appreciates her tendency to quote Kafka and Cocteau in inappropriate situations. Her own magnum opus is an unpublishible novel of ideas in which the main characters are Plato and Helen Keller. Her husband is a model of success, and ever so slightly smug about it. Her mother, Frieda, lives down the hall, and hobbles in for help unwrapping her suppositories; her idea of dinner conversation is a soliloquy on cramps and diarrhea. To make matters worse, Marjorie's therapist has died, triggering an expensive breakdown in the figurine aisle of the Disney Store. With typical drama queen affectation, Marjore sums up her situation with a single French word: "Perdue!"

Into her life falls Lee Green, a glamorous cosmopolitan woman who turns out to be Marjorie's childhood friend Lillian Greenblatt. Lee is too good to be true; she's run an art gallery in Berlin, worked for Coco Chanel, dined with Henry Kissenger and Princess Di, acted in one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's most notorious films, palled around with Jack Kerouac, and met Quincy Jones through their mutual friend Martin Luther King Jr.

Is Lee just the imaginary friend Marjorie desperately needs? Is she a duplicitous seductress? Is she a golem made of muddy fantasies and turned loose to wreak havoc on the Taub household? Is she some sort of devious terrorist who has infiltrated the family? Or is she just a woman of a certain age who still knows what to do with tight pants and a wok?

Welcome to The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, the enormously popular recent comedy by Charles Busch, most notorious as the author of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Busch has gone mainstream with a play that is part fable, part sitcom. A few of his devices--like getting easy laughs from a kvetching Jewish mother--reek of Neil Simon, but for the most part Busch has created in Marjorie, an angst-ridden Jewish New York intellectual manquée, a female Woody Allen slapped halfway straight by Wendy Wasserstein.

Now on stage at Wilde Playhouse and directed by Sabian Trout, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife is ultimately a very funny show, but the dialog initially suffers from a limping rhythm. This, I think, is more the fault of Busch than of Trout or her able cast. The actors manage to be deeply involved in their roles without appearing to work too hard. For the most part, these are easy, comfortable performances that don't allow the play to become the campy send-up toward which Busch sometimes lets it veer.

Of course, as Marjorie, Carlisle Ellis must work at a higher emotional pitch than the others; what choice does she have with lines like "I am ravaged by ambivalence"? Yet there's a touching honesty when Ellis admits, "I'm a cultural poseur." Her Marjorie wants to be authentic, and is crushed by her knowledge that she is not.

Michael Woodson genially underplays Ira; he basks in the attention of his students and develops an innocent flirtation with self-importance, but in Woodson's hands Ira is a basically kind and potentially stabilizing force in Marjorie's life. Roberta Streicher's way with Frieda is refreshingly direct and no-nonsense; this is no cutesy-poo old lady relying exclusively on easy shock laughs by saying "fuck" (which is what the character could become). Similarly, Roxanne Harley keeps Lee from going over the top; ambiguity is important to this character, and it's to her credit that Harley opts not for overbearing glamour but for the easy confidence of a real-estate agent. Kerem Beygo is bright and appealing as Mohammed, the doorman.

For separate admission, Wilde is also offering a late-night pairing of nearly inscrutable one-acts: Sam Shepard's Action and David Ives' Long Ago and Far Away. The Shepard play presents four characters who find basic actions to be incapacitating. Just as they can't locate their place in a book they've been reading to each other, they can't find a place in their own story; there's no frame of reference for the events in their lives. In the Ives piece, a young wife is alarmed to realize that she's stuck in a reality in which life won't be explained to her. Could she perhaps disappear into a different reality?

Both short plays involve the same cast: Paige Swift and Anthony Pavelich especially good as the young couple in Long Ago and Far Away, and, with rather less to do in both pieces, Lisa Mae Roether and actor/director Billy Hayes. They do a good job with plays worth pondering, but the midway break for scene and costume changes is too long, and the show missed its 10 p.m. start time by a good quarter hour. World War II-era cartoons are screened for distraction, and a classic movie follows.

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