From the Plagues visited on the Egyptians to the parting of the Red Sea, Passover is permeated with the supernatural. Little wonder, then, that Charles Busch’s new comedy, “Olive and the Bitter Herbs,” deals with a Passover seder hosted by a misanthropic elderly actress, Olive Fisher (Marcia Jean Kurtz) that is overshadowed by a mysterious ghost.
Passover has been a recurrent theme in drama this year, from Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,” about a Confederate Jewish seder, to Susan Charlotte’s “The Shoemaker,” in which Danny Aiello plays a Holocaust survivor who cannot exorcize his demons until he recites the Four Questions in a number of different languages — including German. But “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” appears to be the first major Passover-themed comedy since the intermarriage farce “Beau Jest” debuted in 1989.
In “Olive and the Bitter Herbs,” directed by Mark Brokaw, the cantankerous Olive is obsessed with the ghost whom she glimpses in her living room mirror. Her acid tongue gets a workout when she hosts a seder for her neighbors, who include a middle-aged gay couple, Robert (David Garrison) and Trey (Dan Butler), a widower, Sylvan (Richard Masur), who is romantically interested in her, and a friendly young woman, Wendy (Julie Halston). After Olive ridicules her guests’ religious and political views, the seder turns into a fiasco, to be repaired only through a series of bizarre coincidences involving the ghost’s place in the lives of all the characters.
Busch, who specializes in drag performances that spoof B-movie actresses, has had an extremely successful career both on stage and as a playwright. After penning a number of campy Off-Broadway hits in the 1980s with titles like “Psycho Beach Party” and “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” he had a breakout success on Broadway in 2000 with “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” originally starring Linda Lavin and Tony Roberts as a hyper-intellectual Upper West Side Jewish couple; it ran for 777 performances and spawned a national tour. “Olive” marks a return to the same territory: the New York Jewish apartment house milieu, which Neil Simon exploited with such success.
“I like to take things and theatricalize them, to take a fantasy a little further,” Busch told The Jewish Week. The playwright, who was raised by his mother’s sisters after his mother died when he was seven years old, said that he sometimes looks up from the street at the window of his extravagantly decorated duplex near Abingdon Square (profiled in The New York Times in 2006) and imagines that his mother and aunts are inside. “I can almost see my Aunt Lillian, my Aunt Belle, and my mother in my window. I wonder about the party that is going on.”
While the Passover seders that Busch remembers from his youth were merely “brisket dinners,” absent of religious ceremony, he was recently invited to a seder at which actresses Marian Seldes and Cherry Jones were also in attendance. “I had my chance to act; I gave the reading of the Haggadah a lot of vocal color and dramatic emphasis. My partner, Eric, told me that I was reading it like Joan Crawford!” Busch quickly realized that the seder was a ripe subject for drama, especially if he took it in the fanciful and outrageous direction that is his trademark.
While Busch conceded that the reviews for “Olive” have not matched those for “Allergist’s Wife,” he noted that a similar thing happened when Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound” were revived in 2009. “In the 80s, critics found it so lovely and surprising that Simon was delving into his family history. But the new generation doesn’t have that history with Simon.” As a result, he said, they view Simon’s plays as overly old-fashioned and nostalgic.
Busch defended the heightened way in which he sees reality. “I live in a rather stylized world,” the playwright reflected. “What other people might find too far-fetched is the world that I live in. I’ve had a series of wonderful miracles and flukes, along with a lot of love, and that has created extraordinary opportunities for me. My life could be perceived as fantastic.”
“Olive and the Bitter Herbs” runs through Sept. 3 at Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., and matinees on Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m. For tickets, $45-$65, call TicketCentral at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com.