Review: Olive and the Bitter Herbs

Charles Busch sautes a crabby woman in a comedy you shouldn't pass over.

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  • Photograph: James Leynse

    Olive and the Bitter Herbs

    SEDER MASOCHISM Butler, Masur, Garrison, from left, put up with Kurtz's antics.

  • Photograph: James Leynse

    Olive and the Bitter Herbs

    Olive and the Bitter Herbs

  • Photograph: James Leynse

    Olive and the Bitter Herbs

    Olive and the Bitter Herbs

  • Photograph: James Leynse

    Olive and the Bitter Herbs

    Olive and the Bitter Herbs

Photograph: James Leynse

Olive and the Bitter Herbs

SEDER MASOCHISM Butler, Masur, Garrison, from left, put up with Kurtz's antics.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

The most daring thing about Charles Busch's Olive and the Bitter Herbs is not its flights of fancy (which include a magic mirror, a jug-eared ghost and a latticework of coincidences), but its grounding in pettiness. Olives do not generally make a palatable main course, and the title character of Busch's cleverly devised new comedy—a farbisene commercial actor named Olive Fisher, ne Blechman (Marcia Jean Kurtz)—is no exception. Long pickled in her own bile, she is crabby, selfish and belligerent; that Busch gets us to stand Olive's company, much less to seek some likable quality deep in the pit of her soul, is a test of and testament to the playwright's generous wit.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs finds Busch in his uptown Jewish-fabular mode ( la The Tale of the Allergist's Wife) and not his downtown gay-fabulous mode ( la Vampire Lesbians of Sodom), but there's still plenty of saucy camp to lubricate the gears. Directed by Mark Brokaw for Primary Stages, the show sustains a heightened comic tone appropriate to the "uncharted territory between Third Avenue and the hereafter" that Olive occupies after seeing a dead man in her mirror. In addition to Kurtz, who squeezes sour milk from every line, the expert cast includes a warmly harried Julie Halston as Olive's underappreciated friend, Richard Masur as a genial widower, and Dan Butler and David Garrison as the bickering gay couple next door. A Passover seder among the five goes less smoothly than planned, but Busch's themes are in keeping with Exodus: Part Kips Bay pharaoh and part suffering Israelite, Olive can only find a better place if she learns to let people go, and perhaps to let some stay.

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Primary Stages. By Charles Busch. Dir. Mark Brokaw. With ensemble cast. 1hr 55mins. One intermission. See complete event information

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