By Hugh Hunter
After a career that consisted mainly in starring in his own drag queen productions, Charles Busch reinvented himself as a mainstream playwright of sorts. His “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” (2000), now running at Stagecrafters through June 29, won a Tony nomination to cap off its long Broadway run.
Perhaps Busch drew inspiration from his youthful ventures in creating Lee, another type of extravagant female who intrudes into a troubled family circle and unintentionally stirs up its members for the better. It is the kind of conniver as healer story you see in “The Rainmaker” and “The Music Man,” except this tale is visceral, ribald and irreverent.
Marilyn Leah shines as wife Marjorie. An upscale Manhattan lady, she yearns for intellectual greatness. But the best Marjorie can do is be a culture vulture, scarfing down every lecture and museum show that comes to town.
In the opening act Marjorie is too depressed to get up. Unable to write her novel, she lies on a sofa in a darkened drawing room. She is further disheartened by her kvetching mother, Frieda (Carol Florence), who keeps comparing her unfavorably to Frieda’s other daughter and to Marjorie’s husband, Ira (Mark Grayson), a successful allergist.
Then Lee, Marjorie’s old childhood friend, pops in out of the blue shrouded in an aura of elegant mystery. Lee regales everyone with tall tales about her 40 years of globetrotting and rouses Marjorie back to life. But where does Lee live? How does she support herself?
In the role of vivacious Lee, actress Pierlisa Chiodo-Steo is a virtual show within the show. It seems effortless how Steo comes up with a telltale gesture, facial expression or flounce to light up every moment Lee is on stage. Lee’s words say one thing; her body tells you something else.
In “Allergist’s Wife” ironic comedy is the plot. While you know very well this delightful rascal is up to something, the family does not catch on. Mohammed (Michael C. Raimondo), the humble Iraqi doorman, is not fooled, but everyone else falls under Lee’s spell. They only wise up when Lee’s audacity shocks them back to life.
Director Dave Ebersole’s production has fine pacing. He handles scene changes gracefully, and in a show that is full of laughs the actors do a great job playing off each other. They spend the evening serving as each other’s straight man.
Playwright Busch does send ups of cultural kitsch (“Psycho Beach Party,” for example), but mostly he finds fun in characters who pretend to be something they are not. “Allergist’s Wife” finishes up with an anticlimactic nod to conventional morality, but we all know that when Lee struts off stage for the last time, the party is already over.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” will run through June 29. For more information or reservations, call 215-247-8881.