It's no coincidence that Olive, the cranky Jewish actress at the center of Charles Busch's latest play, is funny -- in an acidly bitchy kind of way. She's the last renter in a Kips Bay co-op, a woman who bemoans her neighbors and fading career in equal measure. If kvetching was an art form, Olive, the focus of Olive and the Bitter Herbs, now at 59E59 Theaters, would be its master craftsman.
So it's all the more surprising that this aging curmudgeon, renown as "the sausage lady" in an 1980s commercial, should house a supernatural spirit in her apartment. Though we never see him, Olive (Marcia Jean Kurtz) instinctively knows his name is Howard, he once lived in Key West and worked in real estate. He's no Noel Coward blithe spirit, but proves popular with both her friend Wendy (Julie Halston) and her gay neighbors, Robert, a courtly former book editor (David Garrison) and his partner Trey (Dan Butler), a laid-off art director whose own witty bitterness is an effective counterpoint to Olive's.
The spirit of Howard lives in a mirror -- and it reflects much of the characters' hopes. More to the point, Howard arrives around Passover, and as this unlikely crew assembles for a Seder, accompanied by Sylvan (Richard Masur), father of the co-op's catty president, issues of freedom and the inevitable exodus commence.
Busch, an expert at sassy one-liners and laser-like social commentary, is best known for his movie parodies, such as The Lady in Question, Die Mommie Die! and his recent off-Broadway success Divine Sister. Olive more resembles his Tony-nominated Tales of the Allergist's Wife, in that Busch doesn't make an appearance -- though one wishes he would -- and the story line is played straight.
Here, the two acts, which bracket the occasional otherworldly frisson, climax on the subject of destiny. The catalyst for life-altering moments isn't always positive; Olive and the Bitter Herbs posits the notion that seemingly random events have an irony and liberation all their own.
While the acting and direction click, one longs for more coherence to the two acts. Busch deftly explores the singularity of urban connections and the ties, however slim, that bind. But the hasty summation is a bit jarring -- even for a spirited comedy.