Valerie Harper points out good-naturedly that despite the popular impression, she's played only two comedic Jewish characters -- Rhoda Morgenstern on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda," and now Marjorie Taub, the neurotic New Yorker obsessed with self-improvement in "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife." (The play opens tonight at the National Theatre and runs through March 23.)
Harper played Rhoda for nine years in the 1970s and took over the role of Marjorie on Broadway in July 2001, playing it for nearly a year before taking it on the road. Just reading Charles Busch's wicked satire for the first time made her laugh out loud. "It's much ado about nothing, really. That's what's so funny about Marjorie," said Harper from Philadelphia last week.
Other than being Jewish, Marjorie and Rhoda have very little in common, Harper noted. Rhoda "was a very lower-middle-class person, very ordinary. We laugh with Rhoda. I think we laugh at Marjorie, because she's so pretentious and she's so dissatisfied with herself."
The audience meets Marjorie in a depressive funk. Reeling from the death of her therapist, she had snapped in a Disney Store and smashed figurines -- even a Goofy. After the 9/11 attacks, some jokes about terrorism were deemed too "raw" and Busch and director Lynne Meadow cut or altered them. But one phrase has gotten bigger laughs, said Harper. A character refers to Marjorie after her Disney figurine debacle as a "retail terrorist."
Despite the play's Yiddishisms and New York humor, Harper says, audiences get Marjorie's angst. "That's universal," she noted, "not feeling that you measured up. And the gap between what you wish to do and what you are widens after 50." Playwright Busch is saying, "Seize the day, get off the couch, Marjorie," said Harper.
Snows Wallop Shows The snow has hit many Washington theater companies hard. The smallest troupes have seen audiences disappear in the past 2 1/2 weeks.
Catalyst Theater Company's production of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" got a nice review but "then the blizzard hit" on Feb. 16, said Artistic Director Scott Fortier. "The following Thursday when we had a show again, we had three people in the house. . . . We can get by with a smaller [crowd], but when you only have three, you notice that." "Endgame" continues at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (545 Seventh St. SE) through March 15, and Fortier's thinking of extending.
At the H Street Playhouse, the Theater Alliance had to cancel its production of Naomi Wallace's visually stunning anti-capitalist diatribe, "Slaughter City," on Feb. 16. And last Thursday it was canceled again because predictions of more snow meant there'd be no parking on H Street NE, which is a snow emergency route. "Slaughter City" runs through March 16.
African Continuum Theatre Company (ACTCo) opened "Wedding Dance," Dominic Taylor's comedy about African American urban life, in the Kennedy Center's AFI Theater on Feb. 20 -- after the big snow. The next day, they lost people "who were intimidated by the suggestion of more snow," said Artistic Director Jennifer Nelson. Since then, turnout "has been terrible," she sighed. Unless business picks up, said Nelson, "it's just really going to hurt us, financially, which is too bad because I love this play." "Wedding Dance" plays through Sunday.
At larger theaters the losses can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. At Arena Stage, "Theophilus North" was doing "fair" business, but several student groups canceled, a $10,000 loss for the theater. Both Round House and the Shakespeare Theatre had to re-seat audiences from canceled shows at other performances. That meant not selling those seats. Round House estimated the theater lost $25,000 as a result of canceling three performances.
Craig Wright's "The Pavilion" at Round House was benefiting from word of mouth, said Mark Robert Blackmon, the theater's director of marketing and public relations -- until the snow hit. "The snow literally knocked word of mouth just completely away," he said. "There's no word of mouth left."
Wilder's Passage Jim Wilder, a stage manager and mentor on the Washington small-theater scene since the 1970s, died on Feb. 12 of complications from diabetes. He was 59. The North Carolina native, who was universally referred to as "Twig," began at theaters such as Woolly Mammoth, Scena and Smallbeer, where he was co-artistic director with Lynnie Raybuck. He acted occasionally, too. A memorial service was held Feb. 22 at the Metropolitan Community Church in Washington, where Wilder was active in the gay congregation's Theater Ministry.
Raybuck, an assistant professor of theater at George Mason University, said: "One of the things we lost besides his spirit, which is a great loss, was the kind of comprehensive knowledge of early D.C. theater. Because he was everywhere and remembered everything."
* The Southeastern Theatre Conference will hold its convention in Crystal City this week, offering from Thursday through Saturday more than 250 workshops, a backstage job fair, a children's theater festival (featuring area companies Classika and BAPA) and addresses by the Shakespeare Theatre's Michael Kahn, Arena Stage's Molly Smith and others. Registration is $70 for students, $140 for others. Call 1-336-272-3645 or visit www.setc.org.
* Horizons Theatre will have pay-what-you-can previews Thursday and Friday for "That Takes Ovaries," at the Hand Chapel of George Washington University's Mount Vernon College(2100 Foxhall Rd. NW). It's adapted from Rivka Solomon's anthology of stories by women who have stood up for themselves. Call 703-243-8550 or visit www.horizonstheatre.org.
* Washington Post staff writer Alec Klein has written a farce about love, commitment and apartment renovation. "The Carpenter Who Wouldn't Leave" will have two free performances on Monday in the Helen Hayes Gallery of the National Theatre at 6 and 7:30 p.m.