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'Allergist's Wife' has the sniffles

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Oct. 18--Charles Busch, who cut his theatrical teeth on such off Off-Broadway titles as "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" and "Psycho Beach Party" in which he invariably cast himself as a woman, wrote "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" as his entree into the mainstream. It was nominated for a Tony Award as best play in 2001, and ran for 777 performances on Broadway. But that doesn't make it an entirely appealing play, though, to be sure, it has its moments.

The author supplies his usual quota of funny lines. But as I watched director Diana Marbury's cast wrestle with Busch's intellectual and scatological comedy of ill manners, I couldn't help but wonder: What if Busch had reverted to form and called for the title role to be played by a man?

Marjorie's problem is that the empty nest, which left her without the succor of her successful and grateful adult children, points to the pointlessness of her life. She has attempted to breach her self-image gap with highfalutin pursuits in arts and letters. But the recent death of her therapist has stranded her in depression on the Upper West Side.

Frances Sherman as Marjorie nearly puts us at wit's end, sniveling about her emptiness. Her self-satisfied husband, a retired allergist (deftly played by Andrew Botsford with an ineffectual sympathy for Marjorie's plight), is forced to listen ad nauseam as she declares herself unworthy of Nietzsche. And that she never understood "Waiting for Godot," either. Boo-hoo.

Enter Lee (nee Lillian), Marjorie's girlhood buddy from the Bronx, who has led the life Marge wished for. A Zelig-like character, Lee has seen it all. And she is not too shy to remind us every minute that she gave Andy Warhol the inspiration for his Campbell's soup cans, and President Nixon the gastronomical courage to go to China.

Lee is an unbelievable character. Mohammed, the Iraqi doorman (Ali Hamdouchi), doesn't believe her. As played by Jan McKenna -- rather uncertainly -- we don't buy her, either. Lee's appetites span geographic and gender borders; she's up for three courses and a three-way. But playing opposite Mindy Washington as Marge's earthy mom, who likes to describe her bowel movements whenever her daughter is about to eat, Lee doesn't register as part of the same species.

So why not cast her as a cross-dressing Forrest Gump? That could easily have been the author's subconscious intent. And a way funnier time we might have had, ogling Peter Marbury's postmodern condo set, with Buddha standing guard over the Ella Fitzgerald CDs.

Someday, a revival of Busch's biggest mainstream hit to date may take this brave step backward into the author's past -- unless he forbids it -- and we'll see what might have been.

THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE. By Charles Busch. Hampton Theater Company, through Oct. 29 at Quogue Community Hall on Jessup Avenue. Tickets $20. Call 631-653-8955. Seen Friday.


Copyright (c) 2006, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

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