Olive and the Bitter Herbs
Theatergoers mainly know playwright Charles Busch for his outrageous campy comedies, which he also appears in while dressed in drag. Recent examples include “Die, Mommie, Die!” and “The Divine Sister.”
But he achieved mainstream commercial success with “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” a more conventional comedy about a Jewish Manhattan housewife in which he didn’t take a role himself.
“Olive and the Bitter Herbs” comes off as an occasionally lively but lackluster attempt to replicate the success of “Allergist’s Wife.” Once again, Busch is not part of the cast.
The play follows Olive, a frumpy, difficult and disgruntled older actress best known for a popular series of sausage commercials. Inan early scene, she whines that “there’s something in my body chemistry that provokes people to hurt me.”
Although Olive openly treats her neighbors with disdain, they can’t help but hang around her dilapidated, rent-controlled apartment once it is revealed that the ghost of a man they all knew now inhabits her mirror. In the play’s best scene, they all join Olive for a rushed, chaotic Passover Seder.
Olive is a fascinating character played with equal doses of anger and frailty by Marcia Jean Kurtz. Busch also provides plenty of comic zingers covering such topics as gay Republicans, Stephen Sondheim and Phyllis Diller.
On the whole, the plot comes across as a contrived excuse to bring together a random assortment of people. By Act 2, when the characters unveil secret after secret, the play loses momentum and your attention.
Too bad we never get to see Olive’s “gimme the sausage” commercial. Another laugh never hurts.
If you go:
“Olive and the Bitter Herbs” plays at 59E59 through Sept. 3. 59 E. 59th St., 212-279-4200, primarystages.org.