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What kind of a moniker is The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife? It sounds like a midlist novel waiting to become a steady stream of residuals for Rachel McAdams or Julianna Margulies, not something that would’ve sprung from the perfervid, perverted imagination of Charles Busch, the drag artist whose four-decade résumé includes the novel Whores of Lost Atlantis and the plays Vampire Lesbians of Sodom; Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium; and Psycho Beach Party, just to cherry-pick the most titillating titles. The drawing-room comedy—his first play for squares and the first in which he did not appear as an actor—hit Broadway in 2000 and ran for two solid years.
Theater J’s revival has been “newly updated.” In the 140-minute-with-intermission show’s draggier—that is, duller—passages, you may find yourself playing Revision Bingo: A Jack Kevorkian joke, for example, has been amended with “Too late! He died!”, and the self-aggrandizing-but-decent Dr. Ira Taub now has an iPhone stuck to his hand. Taub is the titular allergist, freshly retired, the better to focus on his teaching and good works. Mel Gibson and Osama Bin Laden were both famous men in 2000 and remain so now; weirdly, it’s difficult to tell whether the jokes about them are new or old.
The bones of the thing still work, although the characters grate. Marjorie Taub (Theater J Artist-in-Residence Susan Rome) is an overeducated, maundering empty nester; every rereading of Siddhartha and every Werner Herzog retrospective at the Film Forum just further persuade her of her intellectual mediocrity. Her husband Ira (Paul Morella), is more cheerful: racing from NYU lecture hall to free clinic to radio interview, wearing a “World’s Greatest Dad” T-shirt and a jogging belt with this track suit, and given to saying things like, “I slave for the needy, for the disenfranchised. And yet I am oblivious to the suffering of my own wife!” Into their bougie lives sashays Marjorie’s childhood friend Lee, all grown up into a globetrotting, name-dropping, libidinous Forrest Gump. Princess Di overheard Lee talking with Henry Kissinger about landmines once, and thus was born the princess’ passion for ridding the world of their menace. Lee gave Steven Spielberg the idea for E.T. Et cetera.
Lee is plainly even more full of shit than Marjorie’s aged mother Frieda (Barbara Rappaport), who’s forever delivering unsolicited but disgustingly specific updates on her gastrointestinal health. But when the loose-limbed Lise Bruneau shows up in the role, this show named for an allergist at last overcomes its own breathing problems. Like the Taubs, you miss her when she’s not there.
Besides Bruneau, the other standout performer is Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, who plays Mohammed, the good-natured Iraqi doorman/handyman who works in the Taubs’ building. He’s our narrator, and his scrawlings appear as supertitles above the stage over the scene changes. That he finds the Taubs so fascinating they demand his documentation strains credulity, but director Eleanor Holdridge has found a way to make that conceit work: She has Ebrahimzadeh, positioned stage-right at his concierge desk, react to everything that happens in the Taub’s Upper West Side apartment, as though he can hear it all. It’s a nice touch, although we sometimes empathize with his exasperation more directly than Holdridge or Busch intended.
1529 16th St. NW. $30–$65. (202) 518-9400. washingtondcjcc.org.