At first glance, Charles Busch's new comedy, The Tale of The Allergist's Wife, seems to have more in common with the bards of Manhattan than with the psycho beach partiers and vampire lesbians of Sodom of his earlier plays. Its themes include mid-life and identity crises, the state of Jewishness today, and the stresses and strains of New York living, perennials for screen and stage treatment by Neil Simon and Woody Allen.
The similarities extend to the design: City Center's intimate Stage II, where this Manhattan Theatre Club production opens February 29, has been upholstered with a Riverside Drive co-op set. Designed by Allen's frequent collaborator Santo Loquasto, it is the kind of environment where you would expect to find the allergist himself, Tony Roberts, a veteran performer for Allen and Simon.
But appearances are deceiving. The tip off is the music between scene changes, which promises dark doings, amply served up by Busch. Its protagonist, the overeducated and underutilized Marjorie (Linda Lavin), has fallen into an epic funk, following the death of her psychiatrist and an unhappy encounter with some Disney Store figurines. Her distracted, trying-to-be-helpful husband, Ira (Roberts), and her bowel-obsessed mother, Frieda (Shirl Bernheim), offer little consolation. Marjorie's life brightens, however, with the reappearance of Lee (Michele Lee), a childhood neighbor, who is everything Marjorie is not: impeccably poised and groomed, successful and secure, a celebrity magnet...and not all that she seems.
By Act II, Marjorie is riding a whirlwind of fresh experiences, with Ira in tow for the play's most surprising encounter with Lee. Not to spoil the fun, but afterwards Marjorie, newly if unsettlingly unshackled as a "daughter of Sappho," asks Ira if they should progress into further sexual realms. "Bestiality? Necrophilia?" he responds, in an arch and quizzical tone that brings down the house. It's a quintessential comic moment for Roberts, the quintessential New York comic actor, born and bred in Manhattan, whose father was an announcer and whose mother wrote and drew "Popeye" cartoons for Max Fleischer.
"I just seem to have a natural affinity for comedy, like some musicians have for finding the right pitch," he says. "I may have inherited a flair for it from my mother, who had a great wit and was approached about writing for 'The Tonight Show' in the Fifties. But acting is very humbling. Carol Channing once said, 'As soon as you become aware of a quality within yourself, it's gone.' When you think you're good, you're usually not; on the other hand, you can be very affecting when you're uncertain and unsure, which means that something's going on that you can't control." He laughs at the irony, but you could describe his first reaction to his work in Allergist's Wife as allergic, when rehearsals began in early January. "I did not think I was going to come off well in this at all," he states. "I didn't think I had a silhouette for this character during rehearsals; I didn't see it clearly, I didn't know what it was." The audience, whom he describes as the "sixth castmember" (the on stage ensemble is completed by Anil Kumar, as the doorman Mohammed), was the control group. "You do your work, and hope for the best. How you come off is something you really don't know until you go in front of an audience and you sense either their support or their rejection. Now, I do feel their support."
Roberts always had the support of the playwright and MTC's artistic director Lynne Meadow, who is helming Allergist's Wife. The actor participated in two readings of the play, in 1998 and 1999, and was the only performer retained when the production was announced.
"I have a bit of history at MTC," says Roberts, who has probably trod every board on and off Broadway. "I had done John Patrick Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone there, which was a success. And back in the Seventies, when MTC was on East 74th Street, I did a play called Losing Time, with Shirley Knight and Jane Alexander, which...wasn't," he laughs. "As for Charles, we discovered on the first day of rehearsals that we went to the same high school, the High School of Music and Art [before it merged with the High School of Performing Arts and, as the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, achieved "Fame" in film and TV] and also Northwestern University, where I studied acting under Alvina Krause; my daughter went there, too, and if I had other children, they would go NU, too."
Part of the fun of The Allergist's Wife is watching its veteran performers interact. Roberts had only previously met Lee at a long-ago cocktail party, but he and Lavin first found themselves in a compromising position at the beginnings of their careers. "I worked with her when I was 22 years old in a summer stock production of Take Her, She's Mine, starring Hans Conreid, at the Philadelphia Playhouse in the Park. For a couple of weeks we played a couple who necked on a bench," he laughs.
Off the bench, Roberts moved onto Allen's plays Don't Drink The Water and Play It Again, Sam, for which he received a Tony nomination. The film version of that show began a memorable cinematic collaboration, with Roberts playing the self-confident and seductive Lee to Allen's insecure and frazzled Marjorie, as it were, in movies including "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters."
"Woody's shy with everybody, and it took us two years to have more than a two-sentence conversation," Roberts says of their relationship, which began in 1966. "It wasn't until we started acting together on stage in Play It Again, Sam that we became comfortable with each other. I was awed and intimidated by him during Don't Drink The Water -- not that he was unkind. But in Sam, I was so much more seasoned than he was as a stage performer that that neutralized any fears, and I felt free to relate to him as just another guy. He's the wittiest man on the planet, and we still eat together and talk baseball."
Roberts was also featured in a string of Simon plays, including Barefoot in the Park, Promises, Promises, and They're Playing Our Song. Along the way to a reunion with Lavin (TV's "Alice," of course, and the Tony-winning star of Simon's Broadway Bound) he received a second Tony nomination for the musical How Now, Dow Jones, popped up in numerous TV shows, and appeared in New York stories like "Serpico" and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" at the movies. "We didn't see each other again for ages, until we found ourselves on stage again in The Sisters Rosensweig, which was great fun," Roberts says.
"Linda and I speak the same language on the stage; we've both done a lot of Neil Simon, and she knows what I'm going to do before I do it and vice versa. We feel like jazz musicians in a jam session; the lines don't change, but she and I can go very far afield in our delivery and bring each other back. We hear the ends of each others' tunes," Roberts says. "Michele, in contrast, has been away from the theatre for quite some time [her signature credit is TV's "Knots Landing," but she, too, has a Tony nomination, for Seesaw, and starred in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on stage and screen] and is just getting back on the bicycle. She's very talented and very professional, but it's less instinctive with us as it is with me and Linda."
Appropriately so, as much of the humor (and thickening tension) in Allergist's Wife centers on how the interloper, Lee, upsets the familiar routines of Marjorie and Ira. While Busch scores easy laughs with constipation jokes, there are also more sophisticated riffs on Hermann Hesse, and quips about the Holocaust and global terrorism take the audience longer to warm up to. "Finding the right degree of angst or urgency was the task at rehearsal; if we started too high and too jokey we would run out of steam and no one would believe it, but if it was too Chekhovian it would have fallen flat. I must say I was very frightened when we first started getting in front of audiences because I didn't understand where the level of funny was," Roberts admits. "Linda said at the very start, and she was very right, 'We're not going to know what this is until we start playing it before people.' They told us right off the bat where the levels were, and it was good news."
The actor has had some other glad tidings in his recent theatrical ventures. A longstanding ambition to work with Stephen Sondheim was realized in an acclaimed revival of Follies, at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. This past December, Roberts played a dream part, Ebenezer Scrooge, in Madison Square Garden's annual musical mounting of A Christmas Carol.
"The only religious ritual my sister and I ever practiced was to watch 'A Christmas Carol' with Alastair Sim every Christmas Eve; we memorized every line and gesture," Roberts recalls. "I never thought anyone would ever ask me to play the part, and I leapt at the chance. The people involved were so wonderful to me, not least of whom was the extraordinary Michael Ockrent, who passed away the day after we opened."
But dreams are not so easily achieved. Roberts, who tarted himself up to play alongside Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria on Broadway, suffered all the more for Scrooge. "I used to complain about an eight shows a week schedule; we did 15 a week on A Christmas Carol, four times on Saturday, and three times apiece on Friday and Sunday. I said I would never wear microphone packs again; I wore two for Scrooge. I didn't want to look fat on stage; the computer-controlled harness I wore made me look like I weighed 350 lbs. I don't like heights, and I had to be lifted 20' into the air every day, which terrified me. One day the computer broke down, and I got stuck up there in front of thousands of screaming schoolkids. It was wonderful -- and I'm not sure I'll ever do it again," he chuckles.
"Hold on a second; this could be someone with a job," he kids, as he answers another call during a chat with Playbill On-Line. With two very different plays under his belt this winter, Roberts says he'll be content to help edit an indie film he's in, a midlife crisis comedy called "Surprise," this spring. "That, and watch every inning of the Mets this season."
Of course, if Broadway beckons, he'll follow Allergist's Wife to a new home. "It turns out that me, Linda, and Michele have the same agent. If this moves to a bigger theatre, he can retire," Roberts laughs.