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Hidden flavors in "Olive and the Bitter Herbs" How Charles Busch puts real feeling in wild comedy

By MARK BLANKENSHIP


You don't have to believe in ghosts to enjoy Charles Busch's new comedy Olive and the Bitter Herbs. You just have to believe in the people who do believe in them. 

Olive, now in previews at 59E59 in a Primary Stages production, is a gleefully chaotic show about a dyspeptic actress named Olive Fisher who fights with everyone yet insists she's never started an argument in her life. She gets testy when her neighbors find reasons to visit, and she only softens when she talks to the ghost in her mirror. Yes, a ghost. And that little wrinkle affects every other character, until secrets, lies, and a disastrous Seder flip their lives upside down.

If you know Busch's work---including films and plays like The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Die, Mommie, Die!, and Psycho Beach Party---then you can expect Olive's adventure to burst with witty quips and loopy situations. But for the playwright, the show won't be successful unless audiences also care about the characters that make them laugh. "I like my comedies to have an underpinning of emotion," he says. "So here in this play, even though we've got a mystery-game element to it, and there's fun in that, underneath it is this real well of emotion."

Asked why that matters, Busch says, "I think it makes it richer for the audience. Audiences love to laugh, but they want to feel. It's part of human nature to want to watch other human beings live out their lives."

So how do you inject real feeling into an outlandish comedy? It helps that when Busch started writing, he was thinking about Olive and not the outlandish situations he could put her in. "I've known these women, and I thought it would be fun to write a character who may not be somebody that you'd want to know, but would be fun to watch theatrically," he says. "She's this terrible curmudgeon that we've all known as a relative or somebody in our building."

That commitment to character led to vulnerable moments in the script. In one tender scene, Olive lets herself be gentle with a man, and that makes it easier to care about her. We realize she's more than just a grouchy caricature.

However, comedic characters don't always need full-blown romantic scenes to seem human. Consider how Busch tweaked Robert and Trey, a squabbling gay couple in the apartment next to Olive's: "You've got this older gay couple who have real problems in their relationship, but you want the audience to think, 'Well, it still is a relationship worth saving.' So I've added a handful of lines here and there, dotted throughout, which I'm hoping cumulatively show that sometimes this couple, for all their issues, still are capable of having some fun."

It's not just the playwright, of course, who adds humanity to out-there comedy. The cast and the director do it, too, and for actors, a Charles Busch play requires a very specific style. Julie Halston, who plays Olive's repressed friend Wendy, has originated roles in several of his shows, and she says his work demands total dedication to every moment. "You have to commit to whatever it is, a pratfall, a joke, whatever" she explains. "You have to believe in it. If you try to do the operatic speech that I do in the last scene [of Olive] and you only do that halfway, it won't be funny. If you're gonna commit, the audience will go with you. If you don't, they're gonna say, 'That's phony baloney.'"

Halston adds that her entire career has been shaped by mastering Busch's work. "I came to New York from Hofstra University, and I tried to be a 'real actress,'" she says. "I tried to say, 'I'm going to be very real, very Method. Sense memory. Private moment.' Boy, that was so not me. When I met Charles, he really articulated for me, 'You can be big, but you have to commit to a big emotion.' And Charles can write a parody or a modern comedy and deal with 'big personality' people. And yet they're not unreal. They're very real."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor