The Tale of the Allergist's Wife in Tempe Makes Fun of Wordy, Shallow People by Being Wordy and Shallow

You are an audience member sitting in a theater, and the characters on stage are staring at a real, running wall clock. It shows the current time in the city where the theater venue is located. Another character is late for dinner -- two or three hours late, the dialogue indicates. The clock reads 3-ish. These are not the kind of characters who would ever, ever have people to dinner any later than 8 p.m. (especially at this point in the action). You have just entered The Matinee Zone.

Oh, Tempe Little Theatre, didn't you notice this at last week's matinee? (I'm sure the actors did, but I think you've beaten all the fight out of them.) Is the person who's supposed to reset the clock home with food poisoning? I admit I'm persnickety, but they're all staring at the clock and talking about what time it is, so I know I'm not the only person with a good view of stage right who can't stop thinking about this. But other than that and some mysterious, too-faint-to-be-intentional pencil sketches on the peach walls of the set (what is it with this company and box sets?), The Allergist's Wife is a fairly good production of an interesting and funny script.

The storyline covers several critical weeks in the life of Marjorie Taub (Christi Sweeney), a Manhattan society matron with waaaay too much time on her hands. Despite all the culture she absorbs and the good works she performs, her beloved therapist's recent death has left Marjorie feeling that her life is meaningless.

For some reason, this bothers her so much that she's had a wee public breakdown and retreated to her Riverside Drive apartment, her fuzzy slippers, and her bathrobe from which the belt has been removed (nice touch, that). It doesn't help that Marjorie's husband, Dr. Ira Taub (Kelly Parker), is "a saint" who's retired to run a free clinic and teach, or that her hypercritical, Ira-worshipping mother, Frieda (Barbara McGrath), lives down the hall.

Allergist's Wife is one of the only "mainstream" plays by Charles Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, etc.). Would that director Laurelann Porter and her lead had no idea who Busch is. Porter's director's notes acknowledge that AW is a play about real people who were never intended to be played by female impersonators, but much of Sweeney's performance strays far enough into unsuccessful camp that it's often hard to feel for Marjorie, who is an actual, if ridiculous person.

Occasionally, it's appropriate for Marjorie to realize how melodramatic and self-pitying she is, but her pain and emptiness are as genuine as anyone's -- and would be funny if Sweeney could break away from the diva-like enthusiasm with which she expresses them. (It would also more believably display the return of that enthusiasm at times when she gets her groove back, as it were.)

Nevertheless, the ensemble meshes beautifully, the performances are solid, and Sharon Gonwa's set dressings and William Ferguson's costumes are just subtle enough to recede while still radiating a vaguely upscale feel.

Most importantly, the script is inherently quite funny, and no one does anything to really screw that up. It's a little dated -- I think it should always be set, very specifically, in 2002 -- and it's not just wordy but also a bit heavy-handed and repetitive.

In a way, though, that almost seems purposeful. People who attend five-hour events at Brooklyn Academy of Music and go on and on about Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann and regard pansexuality as an intellectual construct are a pain in the ass if they take it seriously. (And so is anyone who bothers to argue with them, as demonstrated with virtuoso pretension by Kandyce Hughes as Lee Green, a mysterious, name-dropping visitor who suggests that the whirlwind of real life is a remedy for Marjorie's miasma, even though it's just Lee's own brand of despair.)

That's another interesting thing about The Allergist's Wife -- some of the characters aren't who they seem to be. Or it seems that they aren't, but it turns out they are. Or no one's asking the right questions. It might just make you wonder whether truth is overvalued at times, earning the show status as an entry in what Curtains has come to call the Summer 2010 Unofficial Festival of Uncomfortable Truths. (More to come in ensuing weeks.)

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife continues through Sunday, June 20, at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 West Rio Salado Parkway. For tickets, $18 to $20, visit www.tempe.gov/TCA or call 480-350-2822.

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