New York City Theater
"Olive and the Bitter Herbs"
59E59th St. Theater – off-Broadway
They used to say, “You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s Rye.” Maybe there’s a similar slogan about “Olive and the Bitter Herbs.” Chances are, though, the chief appeal of Charles Busch’s latest play is to those who kvell at anything Passover (the dyspeptic Olive’s favorite holiday) and giddily titter at semi-naughty gay references.
Perhaps there’s an audience for this acidic work. True, an occasional zinger comes across as in “This is what our place would look like if we did nothing to it.” But Busch, author of the wonderfully comic and beautifully observed “The Tale of the Allergist‘s Wife” strains to find warmth and humor in this particular tale of a kvetch.
Olive, a onetime actress famous for commercials in which she uttered the immortal “Gimme the sausage,” has descended into a funk. Her neighbors are too noisy, the super won’t fix things, her best friend is about to fly the coop and, worse, she sees a face that isn’t hers in her mirror.
Who this ghost may be is detailed in a climactic scene of particular contrivance. Not only is this not an earth-shattering revelation, it makes little sense.
On the way, we have to endure a Passover seder (“You have to make a brisket – it’s an enormous undertaking”), recriminations between the gay men as to who slept with whom, plus jokes like “Kindle? Sounds like one of Tevye’s daughters.”
Caught in the crosshairs is a talented cast: Marcia Jean Kurtz, David Garrison, Dan Butler, Richard Masur and the ever-antic Julie Halston. Tough troupers all, as directed by the estimable Mark Brokaw.
The author of the recent “The Divine Sister,” as well as side-splitters like “Red Scare on Sunset” and “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” Busch is a New York treasure. Somehow, though, he should have avoided a line like “When will this (expletive) night ever end?” Feeding into clichés about complaining Jews and promiscuous gays, “Olive” does indeed feel endless.
--David A. Rosenberg
--Aug. 23, 2011