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A CurtainUp Review
Olive and the Bitter Herbs

There's something in my body chemistry that provokes people to hurt me. The one time I attended the Cleo Awards, a total stranger came up to me on the red carpet and stole my wiglet. I've never picked a fight with anyone in my entire life. — Olive
Olive and the Bitter Herbs
Julie Halston as Wendy and Marcia Jean Kurtz as Olive
(Photo credit: James Leynse)
Sometimes a bitter pill is harder to swallow than a bitter herb as playwright Charles Busch proves in his dark and tangled comedy Olive and the Bitter Herbs. It's about an embittered, lonely, cantankerous, unpleasant, grouchy (one could go on) 70ish professional actress who lives alone in her Kips Bay Manhattan apartment.

What is most out of the ordinary about Olive is that she communicates with a gay ghost named Howard whom she sees reflected in her living room mirror. Painfully aware that her career peaked with a sausage commercial during the 1980s, she is also aware of how she piques the patience of everyone she meets. As the only remaining renter in the building that has gone co-op, Olive (Marcia Jean Kurtz) has made a point of being a disapproving, unpopular, and generally unfriendly neighbor as well as a demanding tenant.

Olive also makes a point of being a constant irritant to her only friend Wendy (Julie Halston), an ever patient 50ish theatrical company manager who has made it her mission to bring her a little cheer and a bit of motivation — to no avail. Olive is particularly reluctant to comply with Wendy's efforts to forge a peace between her and Robert (David Garrison) and Trey (Dan Butler), the gay couple who live in the apartment next to hers. It is not going to be easy, especially since Olive hates them as much as she hates and complains about the aroma of baked cheese that she says comes from their apartment.

The apparently sincere efforts of Sylvan (Richard Masur), the genial father of the co-op's board president to be friendly and more than a little attentive to Olive is factored into a Passover Seder that has been orchestrated by Wendy and hosted by Olive. Though notably abbreviated, the Seder is the comedic highlight of the play, a recreation/reduction of the ritual like none you have ever witnessed, but as Olive declares to the guests, "Tovah Feldshuh doesn't do the whole thing."

It doesn't take us too long to figure out who is the real host and who or what is doing the manipulating. The plot begins to percolate as Wendy, Robert, and Trey begin to realize, as they connect the dots in their lives, that the three of them share something special with Olive and, indeed, the ghost.

Busch, whose canon of wonderfully wacky and campy comedies include such gems as The Lady in Question, Red Scare on Sunset, Psycho Beach Party, Die Mommy Die! and most recently, The Divine Sister. He has also demonstrated his flair for writing in a more conventional comedic style as with The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. In this new comedy, the plot is driven by a metaphysical force that serves as a conduit for four people to come to the aid of a woman who believes she is unlovable.

The trick that Busch pulls off with mixed results is to keep us laughing as Wendy, the implausibly conciliatory companion, attempts to play down Olive's consistently dour and depressing state of mind. More often than not, we wonder why Wendy puts up with Olive; why Robert and Trey are inclined to do the same, and what kind of future Sylvan envisions with Olive. The answer is part of the implausible denouement. Hardly light-hearted, this comedy is nevertheless a laudable attempt to address the source of Olive's bitterness and the effect it has on the others.

A superb cast has been entrusted with the difficult burden of speaking a lot of funny lines while also behaving either irresponsibly or reprehensibly. Mark Brokaw's able direction seems content to keep the cast ricocheting from mean-spirited one moment to high-spirited the next.

Kurtz, a veteran of both film and stage, has the most challenging task in a role that is determinedly scaled to one note. This is not to say that we don't see in Olive's outbursts and rants a desperate call for help, as well as a need to express her truth as she sees it. As Wendy, Halston, who recently performed to accolades in The Divine Sister, is a delight as Wendy who is also torn between taking more guff from the grouse or accepting a job offer in Los Angeles.

As retired collaborators of children's literature and long-time partners, Garrison, as the mellow Robert, and Butler, as the volatile Trey, are amusingly grafted into the plot as it becomes an increasingly convoluted maze of betrayals, assignations, and revelations. Masur is quietly disarming as Sylvan, a gracious non-judgmental gentleman who may or may not withstand the tumult around him, but may also have a ghost of a chance with Olive.

Credit goes to Busch for writing a top-heavy-with-unhappiness comedy that some of his fans will find hard to endorse. This doesn't mean that we don't feel any affection for the characters. Our hearts do ache for Olive whose bluntness turns out to be somewhat admirable. We respond with empathy to Robert and Trey as they are forced to reveal and resolve personal issues. We are as inclined to think better of Wendy's messy attempts to be a friend as we are also willing to believe that Sylvan is able to get beyond everyone's tangled history and deal with feelings that really matter.

What also really matters to Busch is injecting some apt political digs by staunch Democrat Olive into her confrontations with conservative Republican Trey. Many in the audience at the preview performance I attended had no trouble endorsing Olive when she says to him during the Seder, "The only way I can reconcile your voting Republican is that you're a sad, self-hating homosexual." We are all reconciled by not having to contend with the smell of baked cheese that we have been told permeates Olive's apartment living room, as nicely designed by Anna Louizos. Olive and the Bitter Herbs may be far from Busch's best, but I admire the way he uncompromisingly addresses Olive's bitterness and loneliness with just enough humor and a small ray of hope to make it palatable.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs
By Charles Busch
Directed by Mark Brokaw

Cast: Marcia Jean Kurtz (Olive), Julie Halston (Wendy), David Garrison (Robert), Dan Butler (Trey), Richard Masur (Sylvan)
Set Design: Anna Louizos
Costume Design: Suzy Benzinger
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission
59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
(212) 279 - 4200
Tickets ($65.00)
Performances: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7 PM; Friday and Saturday at 8 PM; Matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
From: 07/26/11
Opening; 08/16/11
Closing: 09/03/11
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/12/11
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