August 27, 2011

"Olive and the Bitter Herbs" isn't Tart Enough

Is there a perfect time to see a show?  Professional critics go to special press nights before a show opens so that they can tell the rest of us if it’s worth checking out. Those of us who write blogs try to do the same.  But it can take time for even the best actors to absorb a role. As my theatergoing buddy Bill says, they need a while to feel the part in their bones.  That’s especially true of comedy, which requires a deft sense of timing and a sensitivity to the audience that can’t be refined in the rehearsal room. 

So the show one sees during previews or even during the early weeks after an opening can be very different from what other theatergoers see later in the run. At least that’s what I was hoping might be the case with the Primary Stages production of Olive and The Bitter Herbs, which Bill and I saw two weeks before it opened at the 59E59 Theaters on Aug. 16.

The play is the latest from Charles Busch, one of the smartest and funniest showmakers working today.  But Olive and The Bitter Herbs doesn't have his usual piquancy. It centers around an older actress named Olive whose greatest claim to fame is her starring role in a TV commercial that was popular 30 years before the play begins. 

The lack of success in her professional—and personal—life has left Olive bitter and biting.  She can’t muster up a nice word to say to anyone—not the friend who regularly looks in on her, the gay couple who live next door or the lonely widower who attempts to flirt with her.

Olive’s only solace is a mysterious—and seemingly mystical—mirror that hangs in her hangdog apartment. The first act of the play centers around an impromptu Seder that she holds there. The second around a "Law & Order"-style show that she hopes will give her career a boost. 

This being a Charles Busch play both acts are filled with zingers but the laugh are hollow and the lines don’t add up to the morality tale that Busch intends about how we shouldn’t cling to the past or fear the future, regardless of how old we are. So the wild coincidences and other silliness that made Busch’s recent The Divine Sister, in which he played a nun, such a hoot seem out of place in this supposedly more naturalistic setting.

Busch has written the play as a gift to older actors; none of the characters is under 50.  And the cast is stocked with vets who have all given theater lovers much pleasure in other shows (click here to read a group Q&A with the five of them).  But nearly everyone stumbled over their lines the night Bill and I saw the show. The split second timing that Busch’s fast banter requires just limped along.

The reviews I’ve read suggest that the extra time hadn’t made that much difference by the time the critics came in. And since the show is only scheduled to run until Sept. 3, it seems unlikely that it will have the steeping time it needs to become more savory.

No comments: