The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and the Trauma of Theater J

Theater J, the professional theater of the District of Columbia’s Jewish Community Center, has had quite a year, as some of you know.  A self-proclaimed watchdog effort determined that some of the plays produced at the theater were anti-Israel, or were giving Israel a bad name, and those plays (artistic merit aside) should not be performed at a theater sponsored by the Jewish community (either through DCJCC dues or through contributions to the local Jewish Federation, which provides funds to the JCC).  Putting aside my opinion and the opinion of the leadership of both the JCC and Theater J that the plays in question were not in fact anti-Israel, putting aside my belief that the leaders of this censorship effort have no concept of what theater is and should be, and putting aside the fact that their campaign simply put a spotlight on things they were trying to keep quiet, their efforts were ultimately successful, and cost the long time artistic director of the theater his job, and resulted in a change in the selection of plays to be performed at Theater J.

That said, we continue to support the efforts of Theater J, as well as the new theater recently created by former Theater J artistic director Ari Roth.  There hopefully will be a place in the city for both to be successful.  Roth’s new theater, Mosaic, has not yet opened its new season, but Theater J is closing its current season with a production of Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”, which we saw last evening.

“The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” is not a new play.  It first opened in 2000 at the Manhattan Theater Club and then ran for over two years at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway.  It has been revived, and somewhat updated, time and time again since then.  It’s original production was nominated for three Tonys.  The reviews of its current production have been quite positive.  Too bad, then, that I, and several others with whom I have conversed about the play, really didn’t like it very much.

The story line is simple – It’s the upper West Side of New York, the allergist has recently retired (early) to spend his time doing good deeds for those who need it, his wife is intellectually inclined but her work has only been as a volunteer and she views herself as mediocrity (and therefore a loser) personified.  Her mother (whose main interest is her bowel movements) lives down the hall – the mother and daughter have a love/hate relationship, with the hate part dominating their verbal communications.  The allergist, not a strong type, is frustrated with his wife, but wants to be of help.  Nothing is positive.  But then……

Then, a childhood friend of the wife appears (almost out of nowhere) and turns the world upside down.  She is glamorous, knows everyone and has been everywhere when important things happen, she is talented, a gourmet cook, and a sexual free spirit.  First bringing excitement to the family, she then comes close to destroying it.  The play, by the way, is a comedy.  A comedy which I, by and large, found decidedly unfunny (with a couple of exceptions).

Which brings me to the aforementioned watchdog group, known as COPMA (or Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art).  Because I thought their campaign against Theater J was mis-directed (feeling that the plays that they criticized only described dilemmas facing the State of Israel, mainly in connection with its Arab citizens and neighbors, dilemmas which all Israelis recognize and discuss ad nauseam, and were not at all anti-Israel), it occurred to me (and I obviously say this with a high degree of irony and lack of seriousness) that a play such as “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” would have been a better target for their efforts.

Every character is “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” is Jewish, with the exception of the apartment building doorman.  And everyone one of them, in his or her own way, is neurotic, loud and abrasive, filled with arrogance and self importance, clannish, and ethno-centered.  And each of them seems to have no current connection with any Jewish community as a whole or to the Jewish religion (in fact, one of their daughters who lives a religious life in Israel is verbally belittled again and again).  Each character in this play is a Jewish stereotype, and a bad one, and as audiences watch this play, especially gentile ones, they cannot help to have their inner and sometimes submerged anti-Semitic instincts increased.

So why should a theater which is a part of a Jewish community center and partly financially supported by a Jewish federation be permitted to put on plays which demean Jews and Judaism.  Isn’t that as bad (or perhaps worse) than putting on plays that deal with Israel’s struggles?  Where is COPMA, I ask?

But we get back to the purposes of theater.  One of those purposes is to allow playwrights and all those connected with a production to express their artistic creativity and follow their instincts uninhibited by state or organized private pressure.  Another is to show the drama of life, whether it be political drama, social drama or individual drama.  To focus on people’s weaknesses and limitations, to bring attention to shortcomings, in the hope that others will build a better world in part because what they are seeing brings them to think.

But if Theater J is not allowed to produce shows that require you to see something negative about Israel, don’t you think that one day a COPMA will be created to make sure that Theater J not be allowed to produce shows that require you to see anything negative about Jews.  Theater J’s productions (to the extent that they have Jewish content at all) should focus on good Jews, happy Jews, the perfect State of Israel, the wonders and truth of the Jewish religion.  Of course, no one will come to see those shows…..but I guess that is the price you must pay if COPMA (or its equivalents) are allowed to succeed in meeting the inevitable goals of their members.

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