When you're hailed as the next Neil Simon, what's a famous drag diva to do?
Such was the dilemma that Charles Busch, the purveyor of "Grand Dame Guignol," faced when he wrote his clever Jewish comedy, "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," now at the Ahmanson Theatre. It's the saga of cultcha-obsessed Marjorie Taub (Valerie Harper), who's braving a midlife crisis exacerbated by her smug hubby (Tony Roberts); her abrasively candid mother, Frieda (Shirl Bernheim); and her enigmatic childhood pal, Lee (Michele Lee).
The Jewish shtick -- including Frieda's hilariously outraged letter to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, signed "Hymie from Hymietown" -- isn't what critics expected from the creator of movie-inspired camp epics such as "Psycho Beach Party" and "Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium."
"People have been saying, 'What a great shockeroo that this little drag queen suddenly wrote a Jewish comedy,'" says the amiable Busch, 47, sporting a shaved head and black jeans while lounging on a cream-colored chair in his West Hollywood hotel. But the female leads are Jewish divas -- "big, flamboyant ladies with outsized emotions," he adds. And they're based in part on his Aunt Lillian, who raised him after his mother died when he was 7, and his crusty Aunt Belle, who really did write that letter advising Jackson to go "f--- [himself] with a kosher salami."
There's also a tad of Busch in the fictional Marjorie, the nice Jewish girl who's reinvented herself as a Rilke-spouting intellectual. "The self-invented person is a theme in everything I've written," says the author, who describes his Greenwich Village apartment as "a cross between Sarah Bernhardt's boudoir, a bordello and a 1960s steakhouse." "After all, I'm a self-created figure. I'm a middle-class Jewish kid who's turned himself into Sarah Bernhardt."
Harper, best-known for playing feisty Rhoda Morgenstern on the 1970s sitcom, "Rhoda," believes Morgenstern would have poked fun at Taub's airs. "Marjorie was the kind of person Rhoda took aim at," Harper told The Journal. "Of course, Marjorie did what Rhoda always wanted: She nailed a Jewish doctor and a fabulous apartment on the Upper West Side."
Busch wasn't the first member of his family to re-imagine his persona. His Cincinnati-bred Aunt Lillian fled her Yiddish-speaking, Russian immigrant parents in 1932 to transform herself into an artsy New Yorker. Like the fictional Marjorie, she abandoned everything that reminded her of her less-than-glamorous Jewish roots, which resulted in an odd religious upbringing for Busch. "We had a big Christmas tree, and for Chanukah, it was like, 'Here's some candy,'" he recalls. In lieu of a bar mitzvah, Lillian handed 13-year-old Charles the key to her apartment to symbolize that he had become a man.
Busch, his breezy banter turning tearful, recalls Lillian as "a cross between Auntie Mame and 'The Miracle Worker.' In the early '60s, my mother died and both my aunts' husbands died and my father remarried and moved away. I got lost in a fantasy world of old movies and was flunking school until she stepped in and made sure nothing got in the way of my creative pursuits."
By 1984, Busch was starring in his surprise hit, "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," at an after-hours gay-punk club in the East Village. Thirteen years later, he says he wrote and performed a six-minute monologue about a creatively frustrated housewife who was "like Medea, but filtered through this New York Jewish persona." The character was so successful that he turned the monologue into the "Allergist's Wife," a full-length play.
As research, he perused Yiddish dictionaries and Cynthia Ozick novels and scribbled 50 pages of memories about his matriarchal family. "When my sister told my aunt she was planning to take a boat trip down the Rhine, Belle said, 'I hope you can sleep on pillows filled with Jewish hair,'" he says of a line he reused in the play. It's so weird to hear audiences laugh at things my aunt said that shocked and appalled us. But Belle loved it. When she saw the show in New York, she kept turning to people in the theater, saying, 'That's me!'"
Not everyone has been so thrilled with Busch's irreverent play, which was denounced in a June 30 letter to the Los Angeles Times as "a gross stereotypical portrayal of a dysfunctional New York Jewish family." But the actors staunchly defend the play. Roberts, a veteran of Woody Allen films, says the piece is "an honest portrayal of people, whether they are Jewish or gentile or Muslim."
Lee concurs: "There have been Hindus who have come up to me and said, 'Frieda is my mother.'"
Busch, meanwhile, views the "Allergist's Wife" as a tribute to his aunts, both of whom died in the last two years. "Aunt Lillian never got to see the play," says Busch, who himself nearly died after suffering an aneurysm in 1991. "My career path must have seemed odd for a woman of her generation. But she never wavered in her support of me."