Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Olive and the Bitter Herbs": Sweet Enough, Though Not Always Savory

Review by Judd Hollander

Playwright Charles Busch spins an amiable and gentle web in his latest comical offering Olive and the Bitter Herbs, (with some dramatic overtones worked in), presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. While not nearly as powerful or over the top as some of Busch's other works, the play does contain some interesting life lessons about trust, respect and growing old. 

Olive (Marcia Jean Kurtz), an aging actress whose main claim to fame was being "the sausage woman" in a 1980s television commercial, is, to put it mildly, a rather bitter person. (Literally anyone who has ever come into contact with her has a resulting unpleasant experience to relate.) She's also a constant and chronic complainer, getting into arguments with those who live nearby, such as with Robert (David Garrison) and Trey (Dan Butler), her new next-door neighbors. Olive's only real close companion is Wendy (Julie Halston), a woman who volunteers as an aide to the elderly.

Recently Olive has had a new person, or actually an entity, come into her life. This new arrival being a ghost who she often catches a fleeing glimpse of in her living room mirror. Said spirit goes by the name of Harold and who, it turns out, has a connection not only to Olive, but also to Wendy, Robert and Trey, as well as Sylvan (Richard Masur); a thrice-widowed elderly gentleman who finds himself becoming attracted to Olive. It's a feeling Olive, who despite all her best (and worst) efforts, soon starts to reciprocate.

Photo by James Leynse.
At its heart, Olive and the Bitter Herbs is an interesting character study of the lengths people will go to prevent being alone. Such as when Wendy arranges for an armistice of sorts, setting the stage for a rather hilarious and ultimately ├╝ber-disfunctional Passover Seder. (Robert's well-meaning attempts to understand a tradition he knows nothing about are hysterical.) Another subject Busch repeatedly touches on is that of pride and how people are willing to sacrifice portions of their self-respect in order to maintain a seeming illusion of stability.

As mentioned above, there's nothing earth-shattering presented here, but the performances are rather enjoyable. Kurtz is a wonder as Olive, a cantankerous older woman who has had such a tough life, and been hurt so much, that she no longer allows anyone to get close. At least not until Sylvan enters the picture. An extremely telling moment occurs when Olive tries to prevent Wendy from moving away, thus depriving her of the only person she really depends on. Kurtz is also able to evoke great sympathy for Olive at points, much of it involving the character's upcoming guest appearance on a popular television series.

Garrison and Butler play off each other well as the cultured gay couple; Robert being the more upper crust of the two, while Trey is the more blunt and bitter. Yet both men find themselves drawn to Olive (and Harold) for their own specific reasons. Masur is fine as Sylvan, one of those people who can best be described as “pliable,” taking everything life throws at him with a smile while coming back for more. Halston is good as Wendy, a stalwart defender of Olive, at least until a particularly funny scene where Wendy finally boils over and rages at the world for the way her life has turned out.

Direction by Mark Brokaw is sound, though nothing all that special, kind of like the play itself. Anna Louizos's set of Olive's apartment is both realistically neat and shabby, and the lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger and sound design by John Gromada are okay. There are however, several places where the play could have ended before the audience is finally presented with the endgame Busch actually picked.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable piece of theatre, offering an interesting blend of comedy and pathos. Not a bad play in any sense of the word, and one could actually do a whole lot worse.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs

Featuring: Marcia Jean Kurtz (Olive), Julie Halston (Wendy), David Garrison (Robert), Dan Butler (Trey), Richard Masur (Sylvan)

Written by Charles Busch
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Set Design: Anna Louizos
Costume Design: Suzy Benzinger
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Properties Coordinator: Kathy Fabian/Propstar
Production Stage Manager: William H. Lang
Production Supervisor: PRF Productions
Press Representative; O&M Co.
Casting: Stephanie Klapper Casting
General Manager: Toni Marie Davis
Director of Development: Jessica Sadowski Comas
Director of Marketing: Elizabeth Kandel
Associate Artistic Director: Michelle Bossy

Presented by Primary Stages
59E59 Theaters

59 East 59th Street
Running time: Two Hours, 10 Minutes (with intermission)
Closed: September 4, 2011

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