Olive and the Bitter Herbs
Written by Charles Busch
Directed by Mark Brokaw
"Life is a supermarket going out of business," Olive declares, "grab what you can because nobody's restocking the shelves." It's one of the more elaborate ways in which the titular character of Charles Busch's new comedy Olive and the Bitter Herbs—being premiered by Primary Stages at 59E59 through September 3—articulates her engrained pessimism. Olive (the excellent Marcia Jean Kurtz), an over-the-hill actress, shares the last rent-controlled apartment in a Kips Bay co-op (Anna Louizos' set is perfectly evocative) with the ghost inhabiting her antique mirror. A quintessential crank, she wears down the optimism of her upbeat carer Wendy (Julie Halston), the well-meaning gay couple next-door (Dan Butler and David Garrison), and even the gentle father (Richard Masur) of the building's tyrannical co-op board president. Thoroughly embittered, Olive's given up on grabbing anything for herself.
This might sound like the dreary twilight of a spinsterish lady, but Olive is neither spinsterish nor lady-like, and Kurtz wields Busch's campy humor and vicious quips with an acid tongue that keeps the audience howling. Occasionally this feistiness goes too far, particularly when Olive faces off against her double, Trey (Butler), the younger half of the neighboring couple. The entire play, then, takes the form of a series of mounting gags that eventually spill over into injurious arguments and produce heartfelt apologies and epiphanies.
Sharp as Olive's humor often is, there's a certain coyness to how perfectly the material panders to the audience for which it was written. There are some risqué jokes, sure—at one point a gay Republican is likened to a Jew voting for the Nazis—but very little risk-taking. Even the ghost proves to be something of a MacGuffin, a glowing, twinkling orb in the mirror that the ensemble interprets to be Wendy's late brother Howard, whom they all saw the day he died. But even this improbable compendium of coincidences, this shared closeness through kinship with the deceased, splits the group further apart.
Olive seems destined for a Simpsons-style end-of-the-episode return to the status quo, but Busch tosses her the seedlings of a romance. Sexual attraction and courtship between seniors is all too rarely portrayed in contemporary narratives, no matter the medium, but here Kurtz and director Mark Brokaw predictably play it for laughs. In so doing, they squander another opportunity to bolster the campy tone with some real emotional stakes—as when Olive tearfully recounts an injurious secret Santa exchange. The life-affirming epilogue seems especially tacked-on, a tidy finale for a light comedy that wants nothing more than to smother anything bitter in sweetness.
(Photo: James Leynse)