Olive and the Bitter Herbs

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    August 1, 2011

    Review by Tulis McCall

    An action on stage can say so much. Watching Julie Halston (Wendy) in the opening moments of this play arrange the pillows on the couch in a row, left to right standing on corners, in a configuration I have never seen ever, ever, ever – even in a furniture store – because such a configuration prohibits a person from sitting on the couch, was my first inkling that we were in trouble.

    This is the story of Olive, a lonely actor who is bitter about anything that dares to cross her path. This includes sentient as well as non-sentient, animate and inanimate. So bitter is Olive (without the herbs) that she ends up driving nearly everyone away.

    Olive is a one-dimensional character played without nuance or spark by Marcia Jean Kurtz who appears to be focused on her lines and her cues rather than her character. Even in the best of situations, however, this Olive is limited in the relationship department. The only way she knows how to connect to people is by creating a ruckus. She complains in a sort of operatic way, and it seems to give her a reason to be alive. The one person she does not complain about is the man in the mirror. He is an apparition named Howard, and she feels very tenderly toward him.

    When her friend Wendy and new neighbors Robert (David Garrison) and Trey (Dan Butler) find out about Howard, they are intrigued to the point of distraction. They are willing to overlook almost anything Olive throws at them n their quest to glean more information about Howard – for reasons that are revealed in the latter portion of the play. Even Sylvan, (Richard Masur) the new man in town visiting his daughter, who is the op-op board president, is intrigued.

    Once everyone is intrigued, the story of the man in the mirror goes pretty much nowhere. In its place we get the a laundry list of events: the airing of a television episode in which Olive is featured; a Seder dinner that goes horribly wrong; the sweet moral outlook that Sylvan exudes to the extent that he is blind to Olive’s temperament; a dash of the sexual exploits of Trey and Robert; Wendy’s need to take a chance in a new place with a new job; and don’t forget a running gag about the superintended who is always expected but never appears. It amounts to a full pot of ingredients that never blend.

    Olive is not so much a play as it is a collection of one-liners. And even the best of actors - David Garrison gave a fine performance in Middletown at the Vineyard last season, and I have enjoyed Masur’s work many times over – have a hard time standing up to such a disjoint script. Garrison struggles to be believable. Masur never strays from his own sphere. Halston seems lost beyond recall, and Butler stays connected through sheer force of will. These actors are forced to make leaps that nearly defy gravity in order to keep the moments of this play connected. When they want to fly, they are grounded.

    Busch is not alone in the responsibility department. Mark Brokaw whose directing skills are not apparent in any way ably assists him. The characters are merely caricatures with no depth or motivation. The blocking is nearly vaudevillian in some scenes and, as in the case of the pillows, without merit of any kind.

    Whatever the idea for Olive, it got lost on the way to the Forum. Something funny and touching was intended, but it did not happen. No siree!

    (Tulis McCall)

    "Laughs and insights are equally in short supply in this forced and flimsy urban comedy."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "Impishly, [it] works best when the fur flies. It's a great reminder that for some New Yorkers, rudeness is an art form." Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "Hopelessly jerry-built."
    Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

    "Offers a welcome warmth along with the merriment.
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "A delicious little comedy despite its apparent flaws."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Busch’s diverting comedy is salted with funny business and peppered with laughs, and dished out very handsomely indeed."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom New Jersey

    "Olive remains a sketch of a person -- amusing company for a brief visit, but no one you want to stick around and chew the horseradish with."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Daily News - New York Post - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom New Jersey - Variety