August 1, 2002
The Tale of the Allergist’s Mother
"I figured maybe it was my last chance."
Shirl Bernheim is sitting in her dressing room at the Ahmanson Theatre, her cane tucked in a corner, preparing to transform herself into the hilariously fierce Jewish mama of Charles Busch's hit play, "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife."
"I'm getting fapitzed," she says an hour before showtime, patting her blue-white hair and sounding like everyone's kindly bubbe. Then she shoots a withering look at her costumes. "Here are the shmattes they make me wear," she says with disgust. "The most awful-looking dreck."
It's the kind of blunt, spunky dig Bernheim has perfected as Frieda, who makes verbal mincemeat of her snobby but famished daughter, Marjorie (Valerie Harper) in Busch's comedy.
Bernheim, 80, demonstrates the same tough-cookie pluck by performing seven shows a week despite crippling arthritis. But don't make a big megillah about her age. "So it hurts me, so I get tired, so what?" she says. "I wanted to do this play, whatever it took, because I figured maybe it was my last chance."
When Bernheim -- whose previous credits include the off-Broadway "Old Lady's Guide to Survival" -- hobbled into the "Allergist" audition, she wasn't faking the limp. She'd been out of work for a year after being hit by a car in December 1998, undergoing surgery and three months in a rehabilitation facility. "I thought I'd never walk again, never work again," says the actress, who is divorced with no children. Then her agent sent her the "Allergist" script and she (figuratively) jumped at the chance to audition.
Busch was instantly impressed. "We'd seen some famous actresses, but they were all putting on 'old' or making Frieda weepy when it's only funny if that old lady is lethal," he told The Journal. "Then Shirl walked in on her own cane and she just seemed like the real thing."
Bernheim went on to earn rave reviews (and some of the play's biggest laughs) with outrageous one-liners such as asking Marjorie's enigmatic childhood pal (Michele Lee) if she's a Jew for Jesus. Another quintessential Frieda moment: Telling Marjorie, who's proposed a trip to Germany, to have pleasant dreams on "pillows stuffed with Jewish hair."
Then there's the rapid-fire monologue in which the character describes an outraged letter she's written to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, signed "Hymie from Hymietown." "It's a bete noire, a black beast," Bernheim says. "It's hard to enunciate with my dentures."
Nevertheless, her bravura performance prompted Back Stage West to proclaim: "If there's any justice in this business, this role will propel Bernheim into late-blooming stardom."
Bernheim's arduous journey began early. As a kid in the Bronx, Bernheim's mother shlepped her to audition at every radio station in New York. By her late teens, she was studying with the esteemed Russian drama teacher Maria Ouspenskaya. "She wasn't impressed with me," Bernheim recalls. "She said, 'Shirl, your voice limits you.'"
When Bernheim's father, a furrier, heard Ouspenskaya's assessment, he cut off Shirl's drama studies. A few years later, the actress married and didn't step onstage again until her 40s, venturing into a Queens, N.Y., community theater. She finally made her professional debut in a play called "Stag Movie" in 1970: "I played the towel lady in this place where a little Jewish man was shooting dirty pictures," she says. "I was the only person who didn't take her clothes off."
It took 30 more years for Bernheim to land the role of a lifetime in "Allergist," although the part isn't without challenges. "The first act for me is always traumatic, because I have a problem getting centered with all the tsuris I have to think about," she says. "So what I try to do is separate that Shirl from the actor, and then I imagine Frieda in her apartment, and I'm transported there, and I'm unhappy, and I'm just waiting to go visit my daughter down the hall."
Bernheim says she identifies with Frieda because "she's a woman living alone, though I envy her because she has a daughter and a son-in-law and I don't."
But the play has allowed the actress to forge some surrogate mother-daughter relationships. Costar Lee took her to lunch on Mother's Day and inspired the audience to sing "Happy Birthday" to Bernheim on her 80th.
Harper, who's lost her mother and stepmother, says she signed Bernheim's Chanukah gift, "I love you, Mama."
"The show is exhausting, but Shirl performs with such energy," Harper said.
How does Bernheim accomplish that at 80? "I tell myself, 'Don't intellectualize, just do it!,'" she says while starting to fapitz herself in her dressing room. "Because if I hocked it a tchynick, I'd never succeed."