Ask Andrew Barnicle and Rick Stein—the duo who, in the past several years, have transformed the Laguna Playhouse from a sleepy community theater of amateur actors and yawner plays into a greatly successful professional theater—if they would have produced Charles Busch's neurotic comedy, TheTaleoftheAllergist'sWife,15 years ago. They'll say: absolutely.
That's hard to believe. While mainstream today, Busch's play was an envelope-pusher back then. Steamy middle-aged threesomes and an 80-year-old Jewish mother dropping F-bombs at every opportunity could easily have launched a Leisure World exodus.
Whether the Laguna Playhouse would have risked offending its once-wizened audiences circa 1990 is actually less interesting than the fact that Charles Busch has written a play anymainstream theater would touch. If you don't know Busch—a quirky writer and notorious drag queen—you've probably seen him. He played a recurring cross-dressing convict on HBO's throbbingly homoerotic prison series Ozand, most noticeably, starred in the 2000 film adaptation of his cinema-spoofing play PsychoBeachParty.
But Busch's face was a fixture in New York City theater long before its relatively recent appearance on big and small screens. In two decades, he carved a niche as an underground theatrical icon, developing from a stage-struck cross-dresser into a versatile writer concerned with examining everything from sexual politics and gender identity to our collective thirst for fame and mass adulation.
His plays like VampireLesbiansofSodom,Theodora:She-BitchofByzantiumand Die!Mommie!Die!,while cult faves and, occasionally, off-Broadway hits, were obvious anathema to the biggest houses. Those types of things don't play in Peoria because they don't play on 42nd Street. It took Busch's least campy, most personal play to earn him a ticket on the mainstream bus.
"It was a very difficult thing to accept," says Busch, about Allergist'scritical and commercial success. "Everybody I ran into would say I must be so happy and thrilled to finally be mainstream, and I think they meant it well, but at a certain point it really shook me up. I didn't know I was so on-the-fringe. It made me very self-critical. I kept thinking that maybe nothing I'd done over the past 20 years was worthwhile. That's a terrible thing to think, and I had to get over it quickly."
While built like a conventional comedy for middle-aged folks, Busch believes Allergist'sis a more reasoned extension of themes he's long addressed.
"I think a lot of people are amazed that this wacky drag performer should write such a mainstream comedy, but I think just about everything I've ever written deals with heroines who are invariably self-invented and try to transform themselves into something else," he says. "Often the crisis of the play is that they can no longer deal with their false identities."
In Allergist's,Marjorie Taub is a high-strung wife suffering intense depression sparked in part by the realization that she isn't as smart as she wants to be and therefore offers nothing to the world. A relatively myopic husband and a bitterly caustic mother make things worse. The appearance of a childhood friend who has apparently lived the life that Marjorie could only dream—breaking bread with Martin Luther King Jr., mentioning the land mine issue to Princess Di—upends the uneasy balance and leads Marjorie and clan into pesky uncharted waters.
Busch's wit is just twisted enough to make you think that, at times, maybe he's putting something over on his audience. Whatever the case, the gentle tweaking of accepted norms in this play is the latest example of the formula that's helped make the Laguna Playhouse such a success in contemporary American theater. It's sure helping to change its audience demographic.
"The things that you see on TV today aren't what you would have seen 10 years ago, and our audiences aren't what you would have seen 10 years ago," Stein says. "A lot of that has to do with the plays we've chosen."
"It's evolution, not revolution," says Barnicle. "It's choosing the right kind of plays over time—things that might gently tread into places we haven't been before, but weren't so big a reach that we'd lose subscribers."
THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE AT LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 LAGUNA CANYON RD., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 497-2787. OPENS SAT. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 & 7 P.M. THROUGH JUNE 26. $45-$54 (STUDENTS $22.50 ON CERTAIN NIGHTS).