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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Drink Up: Marjorie (Linda Ayres-Frederick) takes an imaginary tea break in 'The Tale of the Allergist's Wife.'

Allergist's Reaction

San Jose Stage mixes laughs and empathy in 'The Allergist's Wife'

By Marianne Messina

IT'S NICE to see a literal setting once in a while, where the only abstraction occurs, say, in the odd painting along the walls. The Tale of the Allergist's Wife at San Jose Stage opens on set designer Richard C. Ortenblad's homey, Persian-carpeted living room flanked by a kitchen and dining area you want to step right into for a visit. And buried under a heap of fluffy comforters (it is a play about comfort zones after all) is the depressed Marjorie Taub, the allergist's wife.

Riddled with midlife crisis and Chekhovian angst over her "mediocre" contributions to high culture, Marjorie (Linda Ayres-Frederick) discusses literature with handyman/doorman Mohammed. She laments that the lofty Herman Hesse has been replaced in modern literature by the trifling likes of Nadine Gordimer. Marjorie's own (failed) literary forays were abstruse, philosophical and directly opposed to her mother Frieda's advice, "Write what you know."

Ayres-Frederick makes Marjorie recognizable to anyone with a humanities degree or a hypercritical mother, perhaps forgoing some humor in favor of realism. This often leads to an amalgam of amusement and empathy rather than raucous laughter. For example, crotchety Frieda (a charming portrayal by Cec Levinson) whines and bemoans her ailments (ever pressing firmly on the guilt button) as Marjorie rolls her eyes in exasperation muted by despondence. The humor in The Allergist's Wife is the laugh-at-human-folly variety, buttressed by dramatic irony. Still, scenes in which everyone has just placed some melt-in-your-mouth appetizer on their tongues only to have Frieda blurt out graphic war stories of constipation and bloated digestive tracts wreak pure hilarity.

Enter the stranger Lee Green, immediately suspect in Frieda's eyes for Anglicizing her name from Lillian Greenblatt. Marjorie learns that while she has been abstracting culture, Lee has been making and living it--so her story goes. "I was there with so-and-so when" is Lee's favorite mode of conversation. Fill in the blank with everyone from Andy Warhol to Princess Diana. Jessica Powell, as Lee, is tall, svelte and elegant, playing this embodied zeitgeist with detached charm and enough hints of the shadow self to accommodate all hypotheses: Impostor? Moocher? Grifter? Figment of Marjorie's imagination? At one point, Marjorie explains to her allergist husband, Ira (Kevin Blackton doing a cross between Frasier and M*A*S*H's Major Burns), the ways in which Lee could be a golem, a creature born of their own repressed desires. In a disappointingly pointed (ouch) ending, however, Lee turns out to be not a golem but a shibboleth.

It remains to be seen whether you have to be either Jewish, middle-aged or a humanities major to enjoy playwright Charles Busch's allusive language and dense comedic three-liners. But San Jose Stage gives it the clearest shot possible with tight lead acting. And the production itself is smooth, right down to the sizzle of hot stir fry in the Chinese wok--no, it's not Memorex; it's live cooking oil.

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, a San Jose Stage production, plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Dec. 21 at The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $28-$38. (408.283.7142)

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From the December 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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