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Olive and the Bitter Herbs Might Have Been Better if We'd Been Able to See the Ghost

The setup:

Playwright Charles Busch's considerable fame rests on his parodies of film genres, in drag himself, with his Vampire Lesbians of Sodom becoming a five-year off-Broadway hit, opening in 1985 at the Provincetown Playhouse. Another work by him, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, opened on Broadway in 2000 and garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success. This was the story of a midlife Jewish marital crisis, and Busch returns to this theme in 2011 with a New York production of his Olive and the Bitter Herbs, though his protagonist here, Olive Fisher, is single and intended to be seventy or so, long past the first blush of middle-age.

The execution:

Olive is written as a female curmudgeon, a kvetcher at war with her neighbors in a Kips Bay co-op, but Lee Raymond brings a sense of humor to the role, as well as considerable warmth and charm, and makes Olive likable, a feat, judging by reviews, which was not achieved in New York. There is much bickering in the play - when was bickering ever funny? - and Raymond goes a long way toward salvaging a play filled with non-events and largely devoid of credible motivations. My question is: Where is the real Charles Busch, and what have you done with him? I hasten to add that Theatre Suburbia has given this work a better production than it deserves.

The (alleged) plot hinges on a ghost seen in a mirror in Olive's apartment. I am doing theater patrons a favor by revealing, so their hopes won't be dashed, as mine were, that the ghost never appears, Busch apparently forgetting Anton Chekhov's famed dictum that one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off.

Olive has a friend, Wendy, who dusts for her, and tries to nurture her, and Nora Hahn captures this friendship in a low-ley but endearing portrait, until an unlikely and unmotivated incident in Act Two, when the script compels Wendy to turn unexpectedly into a harridan.

Coincidences play a large part in this work - much too large a part - and permit the entrance of Sylvan (Robert Lowe), a contemporary of Olive in age, who is living in Buenos Aires but is visiting his daughter, who is president of the co-op board. Lowe brings quiet, upbeat charm to the role, and his sweetness at least temporarily thaws Olive's feisty spirit.

The remaining two characters are a gay couple living in the co-op, Robert (Terry Jones) and Trey (Jay Menchaca). I hope Menchaca gets to play a more attractive character in his next role, to atone for portraying here a "nasty, alcoholic queen" - self-described this way in the script, and agreed to by his lover. Menchaca gives an over-the-top rendition of "flaming" and bitchiness, perhaps unnecessarily so, since the intention of most monsters is to conceal their deformities, not display them. Jones is excellent as the more responsible of the duo, which made all the more unappetizing some unpleasant revelations from him in Act Two.

Many a play starts with what is termed "exposition", where one character updates the audience as to what has happened before. This play does that as well, but, as far as I can recall, is the first one to end with exposition. In a scene very close to the end, secrets are revealed, the past is raked over, and enough new information is provided to permit a sequel, though - trust me on this - I am not suggesting one. The play's final coda is so Disney, so heart-warming, so unlikely, that I am convinced the real Charles Busch emerged long enough to pen it as a parody of theatrical happy endings.

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Olive, by the way, is an actor down on her luck, whose fame is based on a long-gone sausage commercial. A just-filmed cameo of her in a television episode permits a TV-watching scene that falls flat. Olive hosts a Passover Seder, which is unpleasant due to anger-management issues, and which seems suspiciously like "padding" to flesh out a thin script. There are considerable laughs, some dragged in from left field, such as outrage over a gay Republican.

Suzanne King directed, and the blocking is professional and smooth, and she has gone a long way toward making the awkward scripting semi-plausible. The tedious scene change for the Seder could perhaps be expedited, and the scene change for TV-watching is unnecessary - there is no reason the characters wouldn't move the TV and chairs themselves, as they await the program. The set is detailed and attractive, as is usual for Theatre Suburbia; it was designed by Suzanne King and constructed by Elvin Moriarty and others.

The verdict:

The gifted playwright Charles Busch has come a cropper here - even thoroughbreds can have an off day - but good acting and direction keep the raft afloat, aided strongly by a totally engaging performance by Lee Raymond in the lead. Olive and the Bitter Herbs continues through May 10, at Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive. For information or ticketing, call 281-253-3488 or contact www.theatresuburbia.org.

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