Review: Olive and the Bitter Herbs

© James LeynseIf Charles Busch’s artistic to the late Charles Ludlam was made evident by such parodies as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Red Scare on Sunset, then his latest effort reveals the influence of another comedic master, Neil Simon. Like his hit Broadway play The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Olive and the Bitter Herbs combines hilarious jokes with just enough heart to elevate it above mere sitcom level. As performed by an expert troupe of farceurs in this Primary Stages production, it’s a consistently fun romp.


As might be gleaned from the title, the play’s centerpiece is a Passover Seder conducted by the titular character (Marcia Jean Kurtz), an aging character actress whose biggest claim to fame is a starring role in a definitely non-kosher sausage commercial.


Among the guests are a wacky group of characters including Wendy (Julie Halston), Olive’s friend who puts up with her acerbic manner; Trey (Dan Butler) and Robert (David Garrison), the gay couple next door whose monthly cheese binges drive Olive to distraction due to the smell; and Sylvan (Richard Masur), a courtly three-time widower visiting from Buenos Aires who soon develops a romantic interest in her.  


The slight premise binding both the characters and plot is the spectral presence in Olive’s living room mirror, apparently the ghost of Wendy’s late brother, Howard. As is eventually revealed in a riotously funny if over-the-top climactic scene, it turns out that all of the characters have had fateful interactions with Howard, affecting their relationships in vastly different ways.


This effort doesn’t have much more depth than Busch’s last comedy, the religious movie spoof The Divine Sister. But the playwright is so adept at crafting facile one-liners that it’s easy to overlook the flimsy set-ups. As delivered by the expertly comedic cast under the direction of Mark Brokaw, they produce a steady stream of laughs, perhaps the biggest of which comes from the simple phrase “Gimme the sausage.” To get that joke, you’ll have to see the show.


59E59 Theaters, 59 E.59th St. 212-279-4200.