What a difference a friend makes. When we first meet Marjorie Taub, the eponymous Manhattanite in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” she’s despondent. As depicted by Susan Rome in Theater J’s stylish and funny production of the play, the middle-aged Marjorie has curled up on a chaise longue in utter dejection, wearing an embroidered bathrobe and socks. When her well-meaning husband Ira, an allergist, tries engaging her in conversation, the talk drifts toward her favorite topic: highbrow culture. But today, even art and literature can’t brighten Marjorie’s mood. Mention of “Waiting for Godot” makes her face crumple. A reference to Kafka prompts her to curl up in an agonized fetal position.
But, things are looking up for the self-indulgent Marjorie, as Charles Busch’s hit comedy soon makes clear. Her beloved therapist has recently died, but now, seemingly by chance, she reconnects with a long-lost childhood pal: Lee Green (Lise Bruneau), grown to be a world-traveled free-spirit who can cook Peking duck like a pro. Lee recounts fascinating tales of hobnobbing with the likes of Princess Diana and the Gorbachevs and watching the Berlin Wall fall. The company of a friend proves a spiritual tonic for Marjorie, who is soon back in exuberant form, attending lectures on Butoh, writing a novel influenced by Schopenhauer, and otherwise exercising her genius for cultural dilettantism.
Of course, the new friend disrupts the equilibrium at the Taubs’ swanky Upper West Side abode, where Marjorie’s cranky mother Frieda (Barbara Rappaport) is a frequent visitor. Moreover, there may be more to Lee Green than meets the eye: As life on Riverside Drive gets weirder, Marjorie and Ira (Paul Morella) begin to wonder whether, in welcoming Lee, they have bitten off more than they can chew.
Director Eleanor Holdridge’s production unfurls on an elegant living-room set that perfectly captures the Taubs’ comfortably privileged existence: The ceiling is lofty; the flower arrangements are museum-worthy; an enormous, subtly mottled painting evokes a bay window with a stunning view. (Caite Hevner Kemp designed the set.)
Of course, a ritzy pad is no protection against existential angst. Rome charts Marjorie’s near-constant angst-fest with expressiveness and large-scale comic panache, at one point — during a speech that evokes Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and, inevitably, Hermann Hesse — actually collapsing onto the floor in anguish. But the actress also convincingly channels the fierce, pulled-together Marjorie who can rise to an occasion and turn a tray of bruschetta into a social asset. (Frank Labovitz designed the characters’ pitch-perfect moneyed-lifestyle costumes.)
Stalking around in chic drape-y outfits, with a self-satisfied air and a beatific, crinkly-eyed smile, Bruneau’s Lee is a force of nature. Morella nails the laid-back geniality of Ira, a revered doctor who runs a clinic for homeless people with allergy problems; and Rappaport is often hilarious as the frail but ornery Frieda, whose troubled relationship with Marjorie may lie at the root of the latter’s neuroses. (The Taubs, Frieda and Lee are all Jewish, and Frieda and Marjorie sometimes bicker on matters related to Judaism.)
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh plays Mohammed, the well-read doorman who is friendly with the Taubs. The character stands at a doorman’s station, just beyond the main playing area, frequently scribbling — a detail that suggests that Mohammed may be the aspiring writer who is penning Marjorie’s story. Judging by the entertainment value of the tale we see, he’s a doorman-writer with a future.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Charles Busch. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge; lighting design, Jason Arnold; composer/sound designer, Eric Shimelonis; props, Deb Thomas; assistant director, Anna Lathrop; projections designer/associate set designer, Ruthmarie Tenorio. About two hours and 15 minutes. Tickets: $25-$65. Through July 5 at Washington DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.