Olive and the Bitter Herbs
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
August 13, 2011
A gem of a Passover scene is the high point of Charles Busch’s sporadically funny but mostly labored new comedy Olive and the Bitter Herbs, the opener of Primary Stages' new season.
Returning to The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife mode, Busch throws several New York archetypes (two older Jews, a gentile so New Yawk she might as well be Jewish, and a debonair and goyish gay couple) into a room and lets their big personalities take over. At the center is Olive Fisher (Martha Jean Kurtz), an old woman whose esteem came years ago as the star of a national commercial for sausages.
Embittered, cranky, and without a single positive thing to say about anybody, Olive believes she can see the ghost of a man in her living room mirrors. She has a fairly clear idea of who it is, never imagining that the few people left in her life, Wendy, her erstwhile caregiver (Julie Halston), and her neighbors Robert and Trey (David Garrison and Dan Butler), also have a fascination with this man. Pretty soon it’s clear how they’re all tied, bizarrely, to Howard, a former drag queen who died in a hot tub eight years ago.
The success of the production, directed without fuss by Mark Brokaw, hinges on whether or not you’re willing to buy into a series of eye-rolling coincidences that make up much of the second act. For the sake of the play, you must, however begrudgingly, and in the end, they don’t add up to much. A different problem is found within the writing of the leading lady, a thoroughly detestable old bitch for whom Busch also wants us to feel pity and root for her salvation. This I could not overlook, knowing plenty of people just as bad as Olive in my time as a Synagogue-goer. I found no way to root for her salvation, despite the efforts of Kurtz, who infuses Olive with both piteousness and awfulness, to create a character that is a bit more endearing than I would have liked.
Still, there are enough very funny one-liners and punchy dialogue that you’ll likely find yourselves rolling. The highlight is a Passover scene, around a small, cramped table in Olive’s small, cramped apartment (realistically rendered by set designer Anna Louizos), which finds the five characters reading the Haggadah, bickering all the way. (Perhaps I enjoyed it so much because it reminded me of Passover Seders in which I have participated).
Halston never disappoints, and is at the top of her game throughout, earning well-deserved applause upon her final exit. Garrison and Butler are adorable as the seemingly mismatched neighbor couple; the former as suave as ever, the latter appropriately loud. Rounding out the cast is Richard Masur, nicely understated as a kindly gent who takes a liking to Olive and solidly steers the otherwise unsatisfying ending.
Ultimately, Olive and the Bitter Herbs contains its fair share of laughs, but it’s just more involved than it should be and ends up going nowhere.