Off-Broadway Theater Review: OLIVE AND THE BITTER HERBS (Primary Stages)

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by Gregory Bernard on August 27, 2011

in Theater-New York

THE BITTERER, THE BETTER

There are two brands of Charles Busch plays: the ones he stars in, which are filled with campy homoeroticism and often performed in downtown theatre dives, and the ones he does not star in, which are safe, commercial and mainstream, and usually performed uptown.  As a performer, Mr. Busch is a class act all the way; as a female impersonator, he is a first rate actress.  However, he has regrettably been hit or miss as a playwright.  When starring in one of his own plays, his appealing, funny portrayals of tough dames often hide the pitfalls of an encumbered script.  When he is not cast, however, he cannot save the day as such matters turn dull or less than delightful.  The wonderful surprise with Olive and the Bitter Herbs at Primary Stages is that Mr. Busch has written a charming, funny and romantic play that will thrill both his uptown and downtown fans alike – an amazing feat considering he is not on the boards this time around.  Combine the wonderful accomplishment of Charles Busch the playwright with one of the finest acting ensembles in the city, and one can only hope that Olive will be around for years to come.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs by Charles Busch at Primary Stages - reviewed by Gregory Bernard - directed by Mark Brokaw - with Marcia Jean Kurtz, Dan Butler, David Garrison, Richard Masur, Julie Halston

The producers of this laugh fest have no reason to be bitter, but the titular character sure does: Olive (Marcia Jean Kurtz) is a renter who blew the chance to purchase her apartment for a measly $35K; now, along with an absentee super and a list of endless problems in her apartment, there’s the issue of a strange man appearing in her living room mirror. Ms. Kurtz drives the play forward with an expert balance of bitterness and heart; never has irritability been so loveable.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs by Charles Busch at Primary Stages - reviewed by Gregory Bernard - directed by Mark Brokaw - with Marcia Jean Kurtz, Dan Butler, David Garrison, Richard Masur, Julie Halston

Crossing her path is the cheese-loving gay couple next door (played to perfection by Dan Butler and David Garrison); not only does she have to put up with those pungent smells that permeate her walls, but those creeps have the nerve to entertain until 9:00p.m.! The other two characters who constantly knock on Olive’s door are overly well-intentioned good Samaritans (played by the incomparable Richard Masur and the frequent star of numerous Busch plays, Julie Halston).  Why do these strangers insist on being so – ugh – nice?

Olive and the Bitter Herbs by Charles Busch at Primary Stages - reviewed by Gregory Bernard - directed by Mark Brokaw - with Marcia Jean Kurtz, Dan Butler, David Garrison, Richard Masur, Julie Halston

Under the tight, focused direction of Mark Brokaw, the seasoned cast drives the play forward with a strong command of pace, edge, and farce, delivering group gasps, synchronized sitting, and scene changes with perfect timing. Olive is full of New York wit, silly coincidences, and, on several satisfying occasions, laugh-out-loud guffaws.  The eccentric cast fills the subtext with darker elements that keep the play from becoming frivolous, superficial, and sit-com-ish (a thankful nod to Stephanie Klapper Casting).

Olive and the Bitter Herbs by Charles Busch at Primary Stages - reviewed by Gregory Bernard - directed by Mark Brokaw - with Marcia Jean Kurtz, Dan Butler, David Garrison, Richard Masur, Julie Halston

The authenticity of the proceedings is a sterling achievement, given that Mr. Busch, who normally pays tribute to a specific style or genre, is clearly paying homage to the best situation comedies in television history: think All in the Family, Maude, and Rhoda. As such, there are many well-intended similarities to sit-coms, most notably the silliness of each and every plot twist, the skillful comic timing by all when landing a laugh, and Anna Louizos’ naturalistic living room set (brought to magical life by Mary Louise Geiger’s lights). Unlike so many contemporary sit-coms, Olive and the Bitter Herbs never grows tired or stale.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs by Charles Busch at Primary Stages - reviewed by Gregory Bernard - directed by Mark Brokaw - with Marcia Jean Kurtz, Dan Butler, David Garrison, Richard Masur, Julie Halston

In addition, no one gives title like Charles Busch—he’s been one of the best since his very first plays appeared at the Limbo Lounge in the lower East Village in the early 1980’s:  Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, and Gidget Goes Psychotic. Has any one playwright in the history of theater ever created so many amusing titles? His witty, winning, new title can now be added to some of his more recent trophies, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and Die, Mommie, Die!

Fresh off his hit The Divine Sister, Mr. Busch has outdone himself by writing a play which is as classy and dependable as his female impersonations, and for that alone, this play should be attended and celebrated.

photos by James Leynse

Olive and the Bitter Herbs
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters
ends on September 4, 2011
for tickets, call 212.279.4200 or visit Primary Stages

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