by Rikki Lee Travolta
Playing at Skokie Theatre under the MadKap Productions banner, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is an interesting theatrical journey that is equal parts comedy and thought-provoking drama. The Skokie production has a lot of strengths, including a standout performance by Aimee Kleiman.
Written by Charles Busch, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is the playwright’s first work written for mainstream audiences. And, it proved a success – premiering in February 2000 in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club, then transferring to Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. There, it ran for 777 performances and garnered multiple Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.
Busch is best known as a drag performer who typically stars in the leading female role in his plays. He is the creative force behind such campy, irreverent hits as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, and Die, Mommie, Die! Several of his plays have been adapted into films.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is similar in tone to the works of Wendy Wasserstein with a hint of Neil Simon. About an upscale New York socialite, this mostly serious show is a clear departure for Busch. The play focuses on Marjorie Taub, an Upper West Side would-be intellectual. Married to a successful allergy doctor, at the start of the play, Marjorie is recovering from a midlife crisis tantrum at the Disney Store.
Upset that she is alone now that her children have grown, and her beloved therapist has passed away, Marjorie shattered a number of high-priced porcelain collector figurines while shopping at the Disney Store, alarming the customers and workers alike. Unable to be truthful with herself or the world, she claims the systematic shattering of six figurines one after the other was “an accident” and that they merely slipped from her hands.
Pretentious does not even begin to describe Marjorie. She is consumed by her obsession with how she is viewed by others. As such, she spends copious amounts of time and energy trying to appear knowledgeable and refined.
To achieve the proper image of the well-to-do socialite, Marjorie fills her days with art galleries, foreign films, and avant-garde theatre. She doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of the programs she attends, but she is convinced it is because she has not yet achieved the level of intellectual bliss needed to fully appreciate them. She is an empty vessel looking for meaning in her life and finding none.
Marjorie’s husband Ira is a good-natured soul who has gotten used to playing cleanup for his wife. For the recent Disney episode, the doctor has to arrange to pay for his wife’s damages and talk Disney out of pressing charges. Yet, he is not bitter.
At his core, Ira wants to be respected and admired. Although he retired from his successful private practice, he spends vast amounts of time working for the homeless and disadvantaged. However, there is a bit of ego involved. Much of his “work” includes lecturing to captive audiences of college students for the sole reason that they cling to his every word, or doing interview after interview with newspapers and radio stations to advertise how wonderfully selfless he is.
As far as egotistical doctors go, Ira is pretty easy to take. Yes, he likes to think of himself as important and goes to great lengths to make sure everyone else knows why he is such a marvelous person. However, he does so with a smile and a warm chuckle. He may not be the life of the party, but he’ll be happy to huddle with select admirers and expound upon all the ways he contributes to the betterment of society.
Down the hall from their $900,000 New York condo is Marjorie’s mother Frieda. Mommy dearest seems to love her son-in-law far more than her own daughter – an indication of perhaps why Marjorie views herself as not intelligent or talented enough. When you grow up hearing you aren’t good enough, at some point you start to believe it.
Marjorie, her husband, and her mother are all well taken care of by Mohamed, one of the doormen at the secure building they live in. He is an immigrant from Iran, with an interesting take on the Middle East and the politics and terrorist factions at play there.
Spending yet another day wrapped in an emotional blanket of depression, Marjorie is surprised by a visitor. Although it is a chance encounter that she has knocked on Marjorie’s door, the visitor turns out to be Lee Green – her long lost best friend from childhood whom she hasn’t seen in over 30 years.
After a lifetime apart the two have a lot to catch up on. Forgiving one bad interaction early in their reunion, the duo quickly become best friends again – just like in their youth. But as Marjorie raves about her friend, Ira and Freida begin to worry that perhaps Lee isn’t real. Neither Ira nor Frieda has seen Lee in person since she supposedly re-entered Marjorie’s life. Given her recent mental breakdown, it is conceivable that they are right.
In many ways, the play is about name-dropping. Marjorie is obsessed with tossing out names of authors, books, playwrights, and other fine arts references. She does so expecting others to know her obscure references, not realizing that even the most well-read of her associates would probably not have any idea what she is talking about.
Marjorie’s fast-living friend Lee is a different kind of name-dropper. She claims to have been at the recording of We Are the World as a guest of her friend Quincy Jones. She also claims deep friendships with Antonio Banderas, Michael Jackson, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Princess Diana. She even hints that she came up with the idea for Steven Spielberg’s ET.
Lee soon moves in with Marjorie and Ira, becoming the house guest who will not take the hint to leave. But it does make for an interesting living situation as emotions and attractions are explored.
Julie Stevens plays the central character of Marjorie. She is out of sorts almost all the time, which has to be a dizzying mind frame to convey and maintain. Stevens is very effective with the delivery of her epic amount of dialogue. She also demonstrates that she knows how to get sexy when called upon.
Peter Leondedis is also superb as Marjorie’s husband Ira. He exudes an inherent sense of warmth. He needs constant affirmation of how wonderful he is, but presents this need in charming fashion. He makes it so you can’t help but like him.
As free spirit Lee Green, Aimee Kleiman bursts into the action of the play like a bright shining star. She bubbles over with enthusiasm for life, disdain for those who ignore important social issues, and a very healthy sexual appetite.
Kleiman truly shines. The stage takes on a different energy when she enters. We see her connect to each other player as the action calls for. And that resonates. The rest of the ensemble is at its best when they are engaged with Kleiman.
Lee is a dynamic presence and the catalyst for all the changes in tone that the play goes through. A good play, of course, is one where there is a clear story arc with principal characters going through a change of some sort. The character transitions the Busch script shows aren’t as blatantly evident as with some other contemporary playwrights, but the cast makes the most out of all the material they are given and it is certainly an entertaining and fulfilling piece to experience.
Mohmmed, the doorman to the allergist and his wife’s building, is well-played by Ravi Halani. As Marjorie’s mother, Amy Ticho has a delightful time reciting lengthy diatribes about her bowel movements – usually making such comments at the absolute most inappropriate times. Frieda is the chief source of comic relief in the script and Ticho takes full advantage of her time in the spotlight.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife is directed by Steve Scott, a veteran theatre professional of the highest order. Scott is an artistic associate for the Goodman Theatre who has produced and directed not only throughout Chicagoland, but also across the U.S. and internationally.
Scott clearly knows how to direct an engaging show. He knows how to balance comedy and drama and create an entertainment experience that leaves a mark on your mind and on your soul.
Scott’s directorial flourishes are complimented by the work of producer Wendy Kaplan, associate producer Wayne Mell, and assistant director Caleb Gibson. Set design is by Mell who knows how to use the Skokie Theatre space to its fullest potential. The set decoration by Barry Norton is especially good.
Lighting design is by the always-effective Pat Henderson. Costumes are by Kaplan, who also owns the Skokie Theatre and is one of the founders of MadKap Productions. Patti Halajian leaves her mark as well as the wardrobe mistress for the production. Properties are by Norton, and Christa Retka claims honors for intimacy coordination.
The volunteer ushers for Skokie Theatre come from The Saints Organization – a group that I have the highest respect and appreciation for. If you attend theatre in the greater Chicagoland area, there is a good chance you’ll see volunteers from The Saints. Be sure to say hi and thank them for their work.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through November 19, 2023. The Skokie Theatre is located at 7924 Lincoln Avenue, in Skokie – a true landmark of the North Shore and a beautiful destination to enjoy live performances. There is also a special Wednesday matinee performance on November 15.
The play does contain some adult situations and language. In addition to being a Tony Award nominee, it won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Playwrighting and was nominated for Best Play in the Drama Desk Awards.
For tickets visit www.SkokieTheatre.org or call the box office at (847) 677-7761.
Photos courtesy of Skokie Theatre.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
Don’t miss a review, feature story, news item, or editorial – Get every new Life and Times story delivered directly to your email!
Follow Life and Times on Facebook (/LifeandTimesToday)
Follow Rikki Lee Travolta on Facebook (/rikki.travolta)
Please help spread the word about Life and Times by sharing this article on your Social Media apps.