In Charles Busch’s comedy The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Valerie Harper plays a Jewish woman from the Bronx with a knack for one-liners and a diminutive, feisty mother. But any resemblance between Marjorie Taub, the allergist’s wife, and Rhoda Morgenstern, the character that made Harper famous, are purely superficial.
“Marjorie is the kind of person that Rhoda would make fun of,” says Harper. “Rhoda would punch holes in her pomposity. Marjorie got what Rhoda thought she wanted: a Jewish doctor/husband and a lovely apartment on the West Side. But Marjorie’s miserable. She’s funny in her posturing and her pretensions, but I don’t think she’s aware that she says funny things. We laugh at Marjorie; we laugh with Rhoda.”
Harper began playing Marjorie on Broadway over a year ago, joining the original cast when Linda Lavin left the show, and moved on to Los Angeles to launch the road company in June. Allergist’s Wife is her first national tour. “I love the idea of going on the road with a show, like so many great actors and actresses did before movies and television,” she says. “I feel a little like Helen Hayes. The thought of having to buy a trunk that will go on a truck is just so appealing. And theatre is my heart and soul.”
In 1998, Harper portrayed author Pearl S. Buck and other characters in All Under Heaven, a one-woman show that she also co-wrote. Two years earlier, she starred Off-Broadway in Death Defying Acts by Woody Allen and Elaine May. The Emmy Award-winning actress is a 45-year veteran of the stage who began her career at 17 as a member of the corps de ballet at Radio City Musical Hall. “I saw The Red Shoes when I was three or four, and Moira Shearer was so exquisite that I wanted to be a ballet dancer,” says Harper. “But I changed my major when I was 18. I got into Li’l Abner and heard laughs.”
In 1959 she was cast in the ensemble of Take Me Along, starring Jackie Gleason. The following year she appeared as a dancer in Wildcat, starring Lucille Ball. “I can’t believe that I got the chance to work with those two,” Harper says. “I was so star-struck to be in shows with them, and I would watch them from the wings. They never sought a laugh—and they could get laughs like nobody else. But they got them by investing in their characters.” Following another dancing role in Subways Are for Sleeping, Harper switched majors again. She studied acting with such luminaries as John Cassavetes and William Hickey, and also worked with acclaimed director Paul Sills, founder of the improvisation-based company Second City. She appeared on Broadway in Sills’s Story Theatre (1970), and his production of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1971).
By then she was already loved by millions as Rhoda, one of the most genuine characters ever created for television. She portrayed the character for nine years, first on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and then on the spin-off, “Rhoda.” “I love her,” says Harper. “She opened the door for my whole career.”