Friday, August 26, 2011

Going Down Easy

Olive and the Bitter Herbs cast (photo by James Leynse)

Olive and the Bitter Herbs

Written by Charles Busch; directed by Mark Brokaw
Starring Dan Butler, David Garrison, Julie Halston, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Richard Masur
Primary Stages @ 59 E 59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street; New York, NY
Previews began July 26, 2011; opened August 16, closes September 3

Being undisciplined is playwright Charles Busch’s modus operandi: from Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Busch relies on clever lines and campiness far more than common sense and plausibility; his newest, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, continues in that vein.

This frivolous sitcom set in an apartment in the Kips Bay neighborhood of Manhattan has a punning title that refers to its protagonist, the salty old actress Olive, whose acting career consisted mainly of commercials, small television roles and regional theater. Best known as “the sausage lady” in a long-forgotten TV ad, Olive, who lives alone, unceasingly complains about her awful next door neighbors who party past 9 PM and whose cheese smell wafts through the paper-thin walls. Carol, the co-op board president, also bugs her, since she’s the building’s last rental holdout.

Then there’s the ghost she sees in her antique mirror, a benevolent spirit that may or may not be connected to her helpful but flighty middle-aged friend Wendy; her cheese-eating neighbors, gay couple Trey and Robert; and Carol’s father, the genial, thrice-widowed and eligible Sylvan, all of whom end up at her apartment for a Passover Seder she neither wanted nor encouraged.

Busch’s play is a series of blackout scenes that lead up to and away from that unfortunate Seder, which in itself could be an uproarious short play if Busch had concentrated on it. For anyone who has attended one of those ritual family meals, Busch’s biting take will leave one falling to the floor in a heap of laughter.

Seder aside, the rest of Olive is so comedically formulaic that only well-placed darts of gleefully nasty dialogue keep it from evaporating completely before its two-hour running time abruptly ends. Of course, the funniest, saltiest and--yes--bitterest lines come from Olive. After she explains what suffering and slaughter the various Passover foods symbolize at the table, she deadpans: “I forgot how much I enjoy this holiday.” And when Trey tells her that he’s a fiscal Republican, she retorts: “But you’re gay. That’s like me, a Jew, voting for Eichmann. You vote for someone who doesn’t want you to exist?”

In order to pass off this running-in-place exercise with deeper meaning, Busch ends his play with a long-winded unraveling of the connections between the characters and the ghost in the mirror (who, lame plot device that he is, is forgotten about for awhile). It’s only the combined talents of an accomplished cast led by Marcia Jean Kurtz, whose Olive shoots off Busch’s snappiest lines with remarkable aplomb, Mark Brokaw’s zesty directing and Anna Louizos’ snazzy East 30s apartment set that make Olive and the Bitter Herbs go down rather easily.

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