Oy vey. There is a mighty unpleasant woman on stage at Invisible Theatre. And funny. And annoying. And funnier still.
That would be Olive, given a very funny turn by Susan Claassen in IT’s production of Charles Busch’s hodgepodge comedy, “Olive and the Bitter Herbs.” Olive is the washed-up and very grumpy actress who lives alone in her New York apartment and does everything she can to run everyone she can off.
Here’s a rundown of the play, the production, and all that jazz.
Let’s see, there’s Olive, the only renter left in her gone-co-op building. She doesn’t like her neighbors. The super. The head of the co-op. The people she’s acted with. The people she meets on the street, if she is so inclined to wander outside, which doesn’t seem to happen that often.
For some odd reason, the much-younger Wendy, who is somehow involved in the theater, has taken a liking to Olive. She caters to her, so Olive tolerates her.
Olive’s neighbors: Trey and Robert, a gay couple with a great liking for cheese. That annoys Olive to no end. The smell wafts through the thin walls, don’tchaknow. Trey is a wine-swilling, acid-tongued illustrator who has been out of work since his partner, Robert, retired as a children’s book editor. Robert is earnest and quite low-key compared to Trey.
And then there’s Sylvan, the father of the head of the co-op board. He has no trouble pushing himself onto Olive, admonishing her for her gruffness with people, and flirting shamelessly with her.
And finally, Howard, the specter in Olive’s mirror. We never really meet him, but we know he’s there.
Olive longs to shut the world out, but her neighbors won’t let her. Somehow, they all show up in her apartment, she invites them (well, is forced to invite them, she would tell you) to a Passover Seder feast (that’s where the bitter herbs come in). Olive is even willing to make a brisket. And have them over to watch a TV show she’s in.
Olive pushes her new friends away, pulls them back, and pushes them away again. She claims to hate the world, but seems to find some charm in having company. Howard is her inspiration to change.
James Blair (who also directs) continues to work magic with the small IT stage. In this production, he and Claassen transformed it into an apartment that has been well lived in but not necessarily well cared for. There are knickknacks crowding the bookshelf, a few mirrors and some furniture. Doesn’t sound like much, we know, but put together we get a good sense of who Olive is, where she lives, and her sour attitude toward the world.
Claassen slipped into the role of Olive with finesse and expert timing. She never left the stage, and never left her character. Her supporting cast did right by its characters, too: David Alexander Johnston has a kind and slightly apologetic streak as Robert; Eric Anson played his bitchy partner, Trey, with conviction. Jack Neubeck, in the role of the older romancer Sylvan, is always a treat to see on stage, and Susan Kovtiz gave her Wendy an earnestness that rang true.
Ah, now there’s the rub. Busch has had some well-deserved hits with plays such as the campy “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” and even won a Tony with “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” But with “Olive,” he has stitched together kind of a mess.
His characters are just sketches, and predictable and shallow enough to make one uncomfortable. The play just sort of meanders along, with very thin threads holding it together.
But Busch can make us laugh. He drops one-liners the way pigeons drop — well, you know. Olive calls the president of the co-op board “a pretentious, overly Botoxed, ageist pig.” It’s a choice insult. Busch is quite clever. And a good playwright. But “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” feels like a thrown-together piece that perhaps he should have scrapped — or at least rewritten — before he unleashed it on the world.