Marjorie Taubman, the allergistís wife at the center of Charles Buschís The Tale of the Allergistís Wife (which comes to the Wilbur Theatre this Tuesday with Valerie Harper in the lead), has problems. Her nagging mother, Frieda, is a constant annoyance; her husband, Ira, has little time for her. Into the midst of her Upper West Side ennui strides Lee, a friend from her childhood whoís had a phenomenal life. Sheís Zelig in a skirt, a woman who inspired Princess Diana to protest land mines and Andy Warhol to paint soup cans. Or is she a con woman? Poor Marjorie canít tell, and before long sheís drawn into a hilariously perplexing love triangle thatís also a search for her own identity. This witty fable spent almost two years on Broadway and garnered three 2001 Tony nominations, including one for Best Play. But whatís most surprising about the hit comedy is its provenance: it was written not by a Broadway stalwart but by the well-known camp playwright and drag star Charles Busch.
If you had visited the East Village anytime during the second Reagan administration and raised your eyes from the newly deinstitutionalized homeless living on the streets, you couldnít have helped noticing the stark silk-screened Toulouse-Lautreckish poster for Buschís Off Broadway hit Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. This " little decadent dream " (as the playwright calls it in his collection The Tale of the Allergistís Wife and Other Plays) features two demonic glamor queens locked in mortal combat through the centuries.
For Lesbians, Busch took a lifelong fascination with old theater and movie traditions, added sparkling brittle dialogue, and came away with a winner. The show ran for five years and made him a star (he played one of the Vampire Lesbians). In subsequent years, he turned his satirical pen to equally ephemeral cultural preoccupations. The úuvre of Frankie and Annette inspired Psycho Beach Party (original title: Gidget Goes Psychotic), which was also made into a film. The McCarthy hearings prompted Red Scare on Sunset (here the to-die-for heroines spout what the playwright calls " ideologies reprehensible to our modern sensibility " ).
But around the turn of the century, Busch began working with Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club, on The Allergistís Wife. " What appealed to me as a director is that his piece had a tremendous amount of heart to it, " Meadow explains. " He has a way of being very, very funny but with tremendous compassion. "
The Allergistís Wife was the first play Busch wrote that didnít feature a part (in or out of drag) for himself. " Iíd been writing all these big defiant roles for myself all these years and heard all these actresses of a certain age complaining there were no roles for them. I thought Iíd write this part for an older woman where she gets to be funny, dramatic, and sexy. Weíre always worried about this character going through this midlife crisis. But she has this fabulous New York apartment! "
Although Marjorie was written for its original lead, Linda Lavin, Valerie Harper, who replaced Lavin on Broadway, has spent the past year making the part her own. " With Valerie, the audience comes in liking her, " says Busch. " She has all these associations ó sheís already everyoneís best friend. " Meadow concurs: " What we came to learn about the play was the range of how Marjorie could be played. Valerie has put such a stamp on it. "
Buschís insight into the complexity of female relationships is deep, and an enduring theme in his comedies. Having lost his own mother when he was seven, he was raised in part by his Aunt Lil ( " a more cerebral Auntie Mame " ). " I was a solitary child who sat in front of the television set when there were a lot of movies on TV ó the movie greats. My father was a great movie buff, and Iíd stay up until the middle of the night watching movies with him. By the time I was 10, Iíd seen the entire filmography of Ida Lupino. My father would quiz me on who won Best Actress in 1942. Itís kind of freaky that I knew. "
Even freakier has been the Allergistís Wife aftermath. As Busch puts it, " Here, this play I wrote that I didnít appear in becomes a success. People were so excited that it was so different, it made me feel depressed over my own work. " But before one can offer a note of sympathy, he continues in classic form: " The first royalty checks cured me of that. "
The Tale of the Allergistís Wife is presented by the Huntington Theatre Company and Broadway in Boston/Clear Channel Entertainment at the Wilbur Theatre December 3 through January 12. Tickets are $25 to $67; call (617) 931-2787.