If you can broaden the standing rule for theater audiences to willingly suspend their disbelief, you'll have a good time at the Invisible Theatre's last show of a rather tumultuous season. (It had to cancel the entire run of one of its shows—simply unheard of—due to illness within the cast.)
Charles Busch's Olive and the Bitter Herbs is a playful little comedy, notable only for its zippy one-liners and its lead character. But what a character she is. And who better to play her than Susan Claassen, IT's artistic director, who has shepherded this company through most of its history.
It's a pretty good guess the play was selected for Claassen to get a well-deserved star turn. It certainly couldn't have been chosen for its story, which is, seriously, one of the most discombobulated you will ever see onstage. Its plot is improbable and the intent not at all clever. There's little to redeem it save for Olive Fisher, the misanthropic, sharp-tongued, aging Jewish actress who is pretty damn sure she sees a ghostly figure of a man in a mirror in her living room. There is no doubt about it: She's fun.
Fisher rents a small apartment in a building that has gone condo. There's not a whole lot she likes about it. The lobby, looking like it belongs in Tuscany, feels ridiculously out of place; windows are stuck closed; the super hates her; and her neighbors are noisy. The walls are so thin that the smells of fellow residents' snacks and dinners permeate them, leaving Olive sour and alone with her multiple remote controls and that mirror, which she knows shouldn't reasonably be the residence of someone named Howard, but, then, there he is. In fact, Olive doesn't like much about anything, which would make her quite unbearable if Busch hadn't created a character so richly funny and one that Claassen can embody to a T.
Olive does needs someone to play off of, so Busch has created some characters for that purpose. There's Wendy (Susan Kovitz), a youngish theater professional, who for some strange reason—there's really no decipherable reason lent by the script at all, except as a rather clumsy plot device—thinks she can save Olive from herself and visits from time to time, compiling a book of suggested activities that she thinks Olive should investigate to broaden her world. There's the cheese-loving gay couple next door, Robert (David Alexander Johnston) and Trey (Eric Anson), who are the source of the horrid smell that overwhelms Olive the first of each month when their cheese-of-the month club selection arrives. And there's the super's father, Sylvan (Jack Neubeck) who for some reason (hint: a way too obvious plot necessity), responds to one of Olive's complaints instead of his daughter. He lives in Buenos Aires, has been widowed three times and wears a gold chain that Lil Wayne would envy.
So these folks, whom Olive doesn't even pretend to like, all end up having a Passover Seder at her place, which provides Olive with a reason to revile gay Trey more than she already does, because—shock—he is a Republican, which makes a lot less sense to Olive than having a spirit/man appearing regularly in her mirror. The guests exchange barbs. They part, but they return to watch a TV episode in which Olive had "starred." Then—I guess because, generally, most people are truly forgiving—they actually feel for her when they discover that most of her scenes had been cut. And that's a prelude to what unfolds thereafter: a conversation wherein is exposed the unlikeliest set of circumstances since Oscar Wilde's story of how a handbag, the manuscript and the train station reveal the identity of the true Earnest.
Oh, OK. It's all just fun and games. Let's not get our panties in a twist about how shamelessly transparent the playwright makes it all work. (But, really, a reviewer should certainly mention it.) And congratulations to a solid supporting cast whose character prep work involved some heavy lifting to make their performances credible, which they must be to be entertaining. And they were.
But they all exist only so Olive can do her thing, and Claassen does Olive's thing really, really well.
James Blair directed the show, and he has found a way of stirring up enough wind to blow this dinghy to the finish line. It's amazing that it rumbles along as well as it does, but even the big reveal doesn't get the climactic bang for the buck it should. A lot of that is Busch's fault.
Blair, with Claassen assisting, does design a mighty fine set, nicely evoking Olive's apartment and providing room for all the carrying-on on that tiny stage. Maryann Trombino's costumes work well, especially Olive's at-home attire. Gail Fitzhugh's sound design helps keep us on course in case our minds wander, trying to find the reason behind, well, anything.
Forty-three years ago, the Invisible Theatre was born in Tucson as part of a national activist theater crusade responding to myriad revolutionary things—Vietnam, assassinations, bra burnings, Kent State—that were going on in our country. Producing original work, these groups hoped their cutting-edge material would help keep the pot stirred, while delivering a type of healing.
Years have passed and the small but persistent Invisible Theatre, like many of us, has mellowed. Now, its edginess factor is more akin to that of a butter knife. Which is fine. It does good work, both serious and comic, and there's certainly a place for a butter knife on the rather enormous spread-out table of theater in Tucson. It's an integral part of the feast.
Olive is a tasty dish. The cast totally invests itself in the season finale's silliness, no matter how disjointed the story. And Claassen, well, she spreads the wisecracking, acerbic, misanthrope with a heart of—well, at least with a heart—across that tiny stage "like buttah."