Charles Busch’s Cranky Olive, Tennessee Williams’s Men: Theater

Julie Halston, left, and Marcia Jean Kurtz in the Primary Stages world premiere of "Olive and the Bitter Herbs" in New York. The comedy is by Charles Busch. Photographer: James Leynse/O&M Co. via Bloomberg

When Olive Fisher, the cranky complainer of Charles Busch’s new comedy set in a Manhattan apartment, insists that she’s never started an argument in her life, eyes roll.

Olive, played with sweet and sour relish by Marcia Jean Kurtz, would kvetch about wild strawberries in July. What Olive lacks in lovableness -- a lot -- she makes up for in gumption, which is the more distinctly New York virtue anyway.

Busch operates in two modes. There’s the female-impersonating camp goddess of such classics as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and his recent hit, “The Divine Sister.” And there’s the zinger-maven in the Neil Simon mode of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” of which “Olive and the Bitter Herbs” is the latest example.

The sharp, speedy production at Primary Stages is staged with empathy and economy by Mark Brokaw.

Olive, an actress whose moment in the spotlight came with a long-ago sausage commercial, saves most of her abuse for Wendy (long-limbed Busch muse Julie Halston), a would-be actress who mostly runs errands for Olive and her ilk.

The new lobby? A crime against Tuscany. The new neighbors? The odors from their kitchen could fell a horse.

Those neighbors turn out to be a gay couple, the indulgent Robert (David Garrison) and the truculent Trey (Dan Butler). Wendy persuades them to come over on an ill-fated peace-seeking mission.

Man in Mirror

While there, however, Robert notices Olive’s odd attention to a mirror and he, too, becomes obsessed with the none-too-blithe spirit she occasionally sees in it (to the accompaniment of New Agey-music that Olive herself would doubtless find as irritating as I did).

Another fine stage veteran, Richard Masur, provides welcome leavening as Sylvan, an unflappable serial widower who falls for Olive despite her best efforts to put him off. On a set of keenly observed details (the rainbow afghan draping the overstuffed couch, the arched entry ways) by Anna Louizos, these characters divert entertainingly enough for a couple of hot summer hours.

Through Sept. 3 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; Rating: **

‘Elysian Fields’

Off-off-Broadway’s Fringe Festival concludes this weekend, leaving just a few more chances to see Chris Phillips’s intriguing “Elysian Fields.”

The title will be familiar to Tennessee Williams fans, and indeed Phillips heads into dangerous territory, imagining three major characters from Williams plays who never actually appear in them.

First is Allan, the beau Blanche left behind in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Next is Sebastian, the poet manque whose gruesome death drives “Suddenly Last Summer.”

Finally, and most famously, there is Skipper, best friend of Brick, the distracted, alcoholic husband of Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

I figure if Williams wanted us to meet Allan, Sebastian and Skipper, he would have taken care of that himself. Phillips feels otherwise, and he’s reaching, to be sure. Still, he imagines them as doomed gay men and draws them with empathy and humor in three extended scenes.

The most realized is the final one, in which Maggie and Skipper vie for Brick’s love in ways that are suggested in Williams’s play but brought vividly and explicitly to life by Aaron Hartzler (Skipper), Daniel Marks (Brick) and Amanda Kruger (who is also terrific as Blanche, Catharine and the Cat).

Through Saturday at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4th St. Information: +1-866-468-7619; Rating: * 1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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