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By JENNIFER FARRAR
NEW YORK – Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, you’ve probably caught sight once or twice of “something” out of the corner of your eye that didn’t seem to really be there when you looked more closely.
So when the characters in Charles Busch’s impishly funny new Broadway comedy, “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” become mesmerized when gazing into a rather special mirror, it’s not that unbelievable.
Combine that mystical fluff with the type of cranky, fault-finding person everybody’s met (or been related to), stir in a seasoned cast to portray a group of people generously willing to overlook most of that crank’s rudeness, and a gay couple, and you’ve got the recipe for another colorful, sweet-and-sour Busch dish, laced with plenty of laughs.
The off-Broadway Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters, which opened last week, contains such typical Busch touches as soap operatic plot turns, snappy give-and-take, and human foibles with a bit of folklore folded in. Busch, who had a Broadway hit with “The Allergist’s Wife,” here provides a witty diversion, bristling with humor despite some uneven plotting.
Director Mark Brokaw well-serves the plot improbabilities with a skilled hand and attention to details. Marcia Jean Kurtz masterfully manages to be simultaneously touching, sardonic, and unpleasant as Manhattan resident Olive, an irritable, seventy-something, fading actress primarily known for commercials.
Olive is quite a bitter herb herself, infusing negativity into everything she says. Even post-stroke, she’s brusquely combative with everyone, while claiming she’s never started a fight in her life. Kurtz gives her dyspeptic character a much-needed touch of vulnerability whenever Olive gazes wistfully into her mirror in search of a mysterious, fleeting man she’s seen in there.
The gifted Julie Halston is determinedly cheerful as do-gooder Wendy, who met Olive on the set of a television movie and continues to keep in touch, trying to persuade her to “embrace life” more. Wendy gamely tries to aid Olive by introducing her to some neighbors whose perceived noisemaking and cooking smells she’s been outraged about.
Unfortunately, upon reluctantly meeting this middle-aged gay couple, Olive snarls at them, “So now we’re supposed to be all warm and runny like cheddar cheese, your favorite; the smell of which consistently permeates my wall.”
Genteel Robert (David Garrison, quietly effective) tries to be kind to his older and obviously unhappy neighbor. However, Trey (a delightfully snippy Dan Butler) is more than a match for Olive’s non-endearing personality. Like a well-dressed pit bull, Trey snaps right back at her, furious that she’s been banging on their wall for six months.
Richard Masur is gallant and sweet as unbelievably genial, elderly widower Sylvan, who takes a masochistic shine to Olive despite her nastiness. As the plot thickens, anti-social Olive somehow becomes convinced to hold a Seder for her neighbors, and in the fast-moving second act, a series of comically improbable revelations unspool, apparently connecting everyone to the mysterious denizen of the mirror. Unpleasant secrets and truths are revealed, and characters’ lives are shaken up.
The comfortable-looking set by Anna Louizos is a cozy, detailed re-creation of a never-renovated Manhattan apartment, appearing as long lived-in as the shapeless clothes (by costume designer Suzy Benzinger) that cover Olive.
Does the man in the mirror represent lost love, self-delusion, misplaced regret- or is he just another Busch drag queen? In the end, everyone arrives at their own epiphanies and conclusions, as in any creative interpretation of a good recipe.