For those theatergoers who missed her on Broadway in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” two decades ago, Rhea Perlman scores again on stage playing another neurotic, outspoken, politically liberal and very funny Jewish lady who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The new play is “Let’s Call Her Patty,” by Zarina Shea, and it opened Monday at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center. Patty is the kind of female character that inhabits a number of Neil Simon comedies and was reinvented by Charles Busch with “Allergist’s Wife” without much noticeable difference except the “Wife” heroine has gone so far over the edge that she has attempted suicide even before the play starts.
The title character of “Let’s Call Her Patty” isn’t quite so desperate, but she’s just as trapped in her affluent Upper West Side lifestyle and apartment where she chops away to make a salad with deadly onions for her pet dog as she occasionally yells out her whereabouts to an offstage husband (we never see) and to discuss her troubled daughter, Cecile, with her very caring niece, Sammy.
When Perlman doesn’t get a laugh with one of Shea’s many pithy one-liners, she hits the cutting board and delivers a bemused reaction with the mere pounding of her razor-sharp knife. Playing Patty, she is the alpha comic to Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer’s Sammy, who would be the straight man if not for the fact that she is a lesbian.
The character’s sexual orientation is the least of what makes her the exception to the Simon/Busch formula. Much more of the socio-political moment is Sammy’s bracketing the play by talking about the Lenape nation and how its people were banished from the island that the Dutch invaders would come to call Manhattan.
Sammy is far more Patty’s daughter than is Cecile (Arielle Goldman), who occasionally shows up to deliver what appear to be dreary musings to her shrink. Perlman and Rodriguez Kritzer are so much fun together that we can ignore the wet blanket that is Cecile — except Sammy has told us the word “mother” is contained in the word “smother.” Uh-oh.
Near the end of this 70-minute one-act play, mother and daughter have their inevitable moment in a rehab center. The showdown is a pale imitation of what Carrie Fisher achieved in her “Postcards From the Edge” screenplay when Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine have their showdown under similar circumstances. There, the confrontation kicks off the wild ride that is a memorable mother-daughter rivalry. In “Patty,” it comes at the end of the play and only reestablishes Cecile’s status as the play’s weak and soggy link.
Margot Bordelon directs.