Tales of the Unhinged

Charles Busch’s razor-sharp comedy ‘The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife’ is filled with wicked fun and biting commentary.

By: Matt Smith

Playwright/actor/female impersonator Charles Busch talks about his Tony Award-nominated play, on stage at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Feb. 8.

   In the past year, Charles Busch has experienced both the thrill of showbiz victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.
   The 47-year-old playwright/actor/female impersonator won Best Performance at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival for his turn as a Kathleen Turner look-alike in the screen version of his play Die Mommie Die, and starred in an acclaimed New York run of his play Shanghai Moon. Also, after more than a year and a half of struggle, Mr. Busch saw his musical Taboo debut on Broadway. Audiences responded to the outrageous Boy George vehicle, but theater critics were less than kind to the Rosie O’Donnell-produced show.
   The new year is off to a good start for Mr. Busch, with Paper Mill Playhouse presenting the New Jersey premiere of his Tony-nominated play The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, on stage in Millburn through Feb. 8. The comedic satire ran on Broadway for 777 performances in 2001-2002, directed by Lynne Meadow with Linda Lavin as Marjorie Taub, a cultured Upper West Side woman in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Daytime Emmy Award-winner Robin Strasser takes over the role at Paper Mill, joined by Lenny Wolpe, Meg Foster, Ariel Shafir and original Broadway cast member Shirl Bernheim.

Robin Strasser stars as Marjorie Taub in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.

   Self-effacing and funny in conversation, Mr. Busch paused to discuss the success of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, reflect on his unlikely career path and offer a defense for the much-maligned Taboo.
TimeOFF How much involvement do you generally have when someone stages one of your plays?
Charles Busch I usually have none, to be honest. But in this case I’m more involved, because my best friend’s directing the play, so I get to butt in and be obnoxious. This is important to me. Paper Mill is one hop away from New York, and this is the first major production of The Allergist’s Wife so close to the city. I really want it to be good, and I take it very seriously.
   I’m thrilled that Carl Andress is directing. I’ve worked with him for a number of years, and he was kind of the unofficial dramaturg of the play when I first wrote it. I learned quite a while ago it’s good to have two or three people whose opinion matters to you. I used to, when I was very young, ask every single person I’d meet, "What do you think of my play?" That’s fatal. Carl has been one of the two people who I’d ask for advice. With this play, he’s been through it every step of the way.
TO Do you hear things that you want to tweak?
CB Just clarification. I try not to screw around with it. The play does keep getting re-written a bit. There have been several versions. When I wrote the play, the war in Iraq was a very far-off notion, so there was a lot of sort of funny dialogue where this couple demonizes their friend and comes to the bizarre conclusion she’s a Mideast terrorist. It was kind of funny a couple years ago. After Sept. 11, when it was still playing on Broadway, the cast was all freaked out, so we chopped away at the script.
   We’ve been putting some of that stuff back in, because there were places where we were killing certain rhythms by amputating. Actually, some of it, if I had a time machine and could go back to when I was first writing it, I probably wouldn’t have put in. It threw people off. It was meant not as a political statement but as a comic statement of the length this couple will go to get rid of an unwanted boarder.
TO How precious are you with your words?
CB I’m sort of a mad cutter, which is a bit of problem for me. I became a writer to give myself opportunities to act. After I kept doing it so much, I grew as a writer, and in a certain way outgrew myself as a performer. If I wanted to write even more challenging work, I’d have to write it where I’m not in it. I have certain limitations as a performer that must be catered to. I never was all precious or thought of myself as the great artist whose every word must be preserved in amber.
   I always thought of myself as kind of a tailor and enjoyed that. I wrote so many plays for this one ensemble, Theatre-in-Limbo, where I had to tailor every moment to their strengths and weaknesses. The problem I’m trying to outgrow is that in a rehearsal, all an actor has to do is raise their eyebrow and I go, "Oh, you want a new line. You don’t like that one?" I’m very fast, so I can do instant playwriting… I’m proud of it, but at the same time, it can be exploited by the wrong people.
TO Is that a skill you developed creating shows for yourself?
CB Yeah. It started out where I was a solo performer. That was the first real writing I did, and a lot of things I wrote were sort of disposable, a little play that was meant to be done in a club (the Limbo Lounge) in the East Village and we were only going to do it nine times. I wasn’t trying to write Long Day’s Journey, just something fun for us all to do and amuse a jaded young audience drinking at the bar.
   But even those plays ended up much more professional than what would be expected down there, and that’s kind of how I broke through in the mid-’80s. The audience came to see the real wild, drag, campy spoof in this bar, and the expectations were high on outrageousness but low on professionalism. Our little troupe actually had this crazy professionalism to it, this slickness, and that’s what kind of pushed us forward and allowed a smooth move to the commercial theater.
TO Something like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was written in a day?
CB That piece really was written while I was an office temp, but I had already had an eight-year career before that as a solo performer doing rather complicated, ambitious material. After Vampire Lesbians (which ran for five years off-Broadway) people would say, "Well, you’ve really grown since ‘Vampire Lesbians,’" and I would say, "Well, I was grown before ‘Vampire Lesbians.’ That’s kind of an aberrant piece of mine."
TO You wrote The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife with Linda Lavin in mind for the Broadway production?
CB Yes and no. I was in the middle of writing it when I went to see her perform in a play called Death Defying Acts, and she was just dazzling in that. I’d been familiar with Linda Lavin but hadn’t really seen her on stage. Immediately I thought, "She’d just be so perfect," and then I couldn’t get her voice out of my head.
TO Have you had a chance to see Robin Strasser rehearse for the role at all?
CB Yes, Robin had actually auditioned for the (national) tour, for the other part (Lee Green/Lillian Greenblatt), and we just flipped over her. She played it four different ways. But she turned us down to do a soap in L.A. I was very disappointed, but at the time we said, "Well, she could play either part." I’m thrilled I finally got her.
TO There was no thought you would play that role?
CB No, never, and I don’t think I ever will. My strength as a performer, as I try to objectify myself and not seem arrogant, is just that at my best I’m able to play this female part with psychological accuracy and emotion, but I also am commenting on the history of star acting. That’s the tightrope I walk. In this play, that’s not required. What you want is a naturalistic actress, and because it is in a different style and is not a movie-genre parody, I wouldn’t want the audience to think of it as the same kind of play. Not to say that it’s a better play, just a different kind of style.
   It’s funny, because a little theater in San Francisco is doing a play of mine called You Should Be So Lucky, which was also a sort of Jewish boulevard comedy like this, and was the one play where I actually played a male role. I got an e-mail back from the producer saying they were having a hard time casting the role of an Asian talk-show hostess and would I mind if they cast a man in drag. I wrote back and said, "I know this sounds terribly hypocritical coming from me, but I really would mind, because that would mean the play was acted in the same style of everything else of mine." And I like to show I do have some variety in my writing.
TO Where did you get the idea for The Allergist’s Wife?
CB It’s so funny where ideas come from — it’s sort of a chain reaction. Every time I think I know where the idea for The Allergist’s Wife came from, I trace it back further. It’s like trying to find the source of the Nile. What it was is that I did You Should Be So Lucky in 1994, with the supporting character of Lenore (Rosenberg), this raging New Yorker, and my friend Julie Halston played the part and stole the show. She had this huge monologue where she wiped the stage with all of us. I was incredibly jealous.
   And then, after that, I was working on a solo show called Flipping My Wig, doing all sorts of short monologues, and thought, "I’ll write myself a Lenore monologue. If I can do it for her, I can do it for me." I wrote this character of Miriam Passman, with the same kind of rhythms, the same kind of rage. That was just a six-minute piece, but it really was detailed about her whole life, this kind of lady, in a very contemporary New York setting. And then I said, "I’d really like to write a play about that character," but it took me a while to come up with the plot line that would serve her.
TO I’m wondering if you’ve gotten used to theater critics, what they say about your work?
CB It’s very hard. It’s hard taking criticism. I try now not to read negative things, but then I’m sort of drawn to it at the same time. I think it’s both narcissism, seeking more praise — "Maybe somebody else will say something nice about me" — and I think it’s a bit of masochism, too. This makes me sound kind of twisted, and I’m sure I’m not alone, but sometimes we seek out people who are going to make us feel bad, for whatever perverse reason.
   I really took a rap recently with Taboo. I worked so hard on it for a year and half. It was a very complicated situation, and artistic choices that you make aren’t always made for artistic reasons. Critics, and why should they know, because you’re ultimately judged by what’s on stage, but there’s this frustration: "Oh, if they only knew that I had to make that choice because of this reason, this reason and that reason, they would have made the same choice too."
   And yet I agree that it’s not quite right. The thing with Taboo is that it’s not a perfect show, but there are a lot of marvelous things in it. Audiences generally love it, and there are a lot of very interesting showbiz professionals who have been coming, whose opinions I really respect, and they seem to really go for it. Maybe it’s not the disaster some of the anti-Rosie critics (made it out to be). I think it really was that she just rubbed them the wrong way, and when you read the reviews it doesn’t take an Einstein to see there are all sorts of agendas in so many of them — for Rosie, for the gay content of the show. Everything about it just rubs them the wrong way. I think they’re much too harsh on a show that has some very special things in it.
TO Are you as concerned about criticism of your acting?
CB Actually, I think I’m more sensitive about my acting. You’re much more vulnerable when you’re up there, and if somebody doesn’t like you as an actor, it’s like they don’t like you personally. It’s easy to think that way. My ego is much more personal when it comes to being on stage.
   Also, I have such an odd career when it comes to my acting. Since I only perform in drag, do female characters, I’m very insecure when I play a male character. In drag, I worry that people won’t take it seriously, won’t see that underneath the theatrical conceit of drag I actually am trying to act and do a full character. Sometimes people don’t want to go there. That’s why this award I won last year at Sundance for my movie Die Mommie Die means so much to me. I was so moved. This jury actually thought I was acting.
TO That’s where I was going to go next. This is a huge success for you. Is it mostly playing at film festivals?
CB It’s doing pretty well. It’s not My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but its initial run in New York was six weeks, which was pretty respectable. It’s opening all over the county — it seems like another city each week — but it’s a small movie. It will probably come out on DVD in June. We’re pleased with it.
   I was thrilled to make it. It was such an incredible dream come true for me to star in a movie. I get to do everything I wanted to do in a movie: I’m dramatic and funny and wear 40 costumes; I age 20 years, do musical numbers and play love scenes with Jason Priestley. It doesn’t get much better. It’s every fantasy I ever had.
The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, through Feb. 8. Performances: Wed., Fri. 8 p.m.; Thurs. 2, 8 p.m.; Sat. 2:30, 8 p.m.; Sun. 2, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 4, 6, 2 p.m. Tickets cost $30-$67; $16 student rush day of show. For information, call (973) 376-4343. On the Web: www.papermill.org. Charles Busch on the Web: www.charlesbusch.com