With his latest Off-Broadway comedy, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, Charles Busch shows once again that he knows how to write terrific one-liners and uproarious scenes. Like his hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Olive is fast, funny, light and perfectly cast. Olive isn’t ultimately as satisfying a play, partly because the second act delivers fewer laughs and partly because the central character isn’t very likable. But it’s still quite entertaining.
Marcia Jean Kurtz, who plays Olive, is an elderly actress known primarily as the "gimme the sausage" lady from an old TV commercial. She is the last rental tenant in a gentrified Kips Bay building and is constantly feuding with her neighbors. Her current enemies include a gay couple that has moved in next door, children’s book editor Robert (David Garrison) and unemployed illustrator Trey (Dan Butler). Olive’s only friend appears to be Wendy (Julie Halston), who has a habit of taking care of older women she has worked with in the theater. No matter how much Wendy does for her, however, Olive remains a crotchety complainer.
Olive does warm up when she believes a ghost is living in her mirror. The ghost, it turns out, is a gay realtor named Howard. Soon Trey, Robert and Wendy all become fascinated with the ghost as well, believing that they have a connection to it.
The play’s comic high point is a hilariously disastrous Passover Seder scene. Busch writes jokes as well as any contemporary playwright. He especially knows how to wring laughs from Jewish New York women and gay men. There’s no drag queen part for Busch, but there is a sweet-natured Miami widower named Sylvan (Richard Masur), who joins the others for the Seder.
All the actors display expert timing, particularly Butler (a veteran of TV’s Frasier) and Halston (whose exaggerated New York accent has made her a scene stealer in numerous Busch comedies). Halston knows how to get a laugh, and she milks her big monologue near the end. Kurtz is just right as the kvetching Olive. It’s just too bad the character is so nasty that it’s often hard to root for her. Garrison and Masur have fewer comic zingers but help ground the play with their believable performances.
Mark Brokaw contributes tight direction, making sure the jokes come at a fast and furious pace, and Anna Louizos designed the detailed, dead-on set. While it’s hardly a flawless play, Olive and the Bitter Herbs is one of the funniest shows in town.