Rent at New World Stages; Olive and the Bitter Herbs at Primary Stages

<i>Rent</i> is past due, but <i>Olive</i> is fresh.

olive production photo 2 Rent at New World Stages; Olive and the Bitter Herbs at Primary Stages

It’s not terribly hard to get an audience to clap along to a song, especially when its singers are lined up across the front of a stage, bringing their own hands together. The challenge is having the audience stop—all at once, at the right moment, no petering out or stragglers. As the second act began at the press preview of the Off-Broadway revival of Rent I attended last week, the 490-odd giddily enthusiastic theatergoers around me—they couldn’t all be friends of the production—dove right into the clap-along portion of Jonathan Larson’s anthemic “Seasons of Love,” and, much more impressive, they all stopped precisely on cue.

That’s a good sign for this pleasant but unthrilling production, which opened Thursday night at New World Stages. Its producers are honing a scheme to keep popular Broadway musicals running indefinitely at Off-Broadway scale, as they’ve already done with Avenue Q. The idea is to leverage an iconic show’s name recognition, built on Broadway, mix it with Off-Broadway’s much lower running costs, add just a pinch of creative freshening, and end up with a respectable little income stream. It’s a plan that greatly benefits from a built-in fan base devoted enough to know when to stop clapping.

It all makes good sense from a business perspective, and it worked nicely with cynical and ironic Avenue Q, which moved intact to New World immediately after its six-year Broadway run and retained its fun and bite in the new space. But Rent, an earnest product of a different era, has fared less well.

This landmark musical of the 1990s, a celebration of life and love and making art in the just-starting-to-gentrify East Village, arrived at New York Theater Workshop in 1996 and quickly transferred to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre, where it camped out for the next 12 years. Three years after it closed there, director Michael Greif has hauled his original production out of storage and remounted it in the new venue, with a new cast, a different set and costumes, and just about everything else intact.

The legendary power and freshness of that original production is gone. What’s on stage now feels a bit worn and even a bit silly. What exactly is the “cyber studio” the greedy landlord still wants to build on the show’s hallowed block of East 11th Street? (And, when considered as a real thing, not just as bogeyman, isn’t it just the sort of establishment today’s creative East Villagers would want to live near?) This is a fine production of a rightly beloved show, sure to thrill great numbers of angsty high schoolers visiting New York, which is of course what the producers have set out to do. In its eager-to-please passability, it brings nostalgic smiles to more jaded theatergoers, too.

But, at base, what was once a show that spoke truths about life in New York is now a show that speaks truths about the theater business. “Theater is a business and we do it to make money,” producer Jeffrey Seller told The Times a few weeks ago, an atypically explicit declaration of the commercialism of commercial theater. “I’m a producer and I have to make a living, and we have a director who needs to make a living, and we have actors who act to make a living.” It’s a fair point, but an odd fit for a musical that celebrates the virtues of refusing to make a living.

Never mind the bohemians; it’s la vie capitaliste.

The writer and drag performer Charles Busch is known for two types of shows: shticky, drag send-ups of golden-age movie tropes, like his recent and hilarious Divine Sister, and marginally less shticky, non-drag send-ups of New Yorker cartoon-style New York Jews, like his Broadway hit, Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.

His latest, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, which he wrote but does not star in—all the women are played by actual women—opened last night in a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters. With a crotchety, rent-stabilized protagonist named Olive and a climatic Passover seder (those titular bitter herbs), it would seem to fall squarely into the latter camp.

But not entirely: the plot is moved forward by a spectral presence perhaps living in Olive’s living-room wall mirror, a hot-tubbing gay real-estate agent from Key West named Howard. It’s a bit of high-shtick looniness that seems more a part of drag cabaret than Borscht Belt realism, and it gives the play—which is sort of silly, mostly forgettable, and entirely laugh-out-loud funny—a goofily delightful third reel, as each character in turn realizes they interacted with Howard on the last day of his life.

Mark Brokaw directs a cast of pros who ably handle Mr. Busch’s one liners: Marcia Jean Kurtz as Olive, resentful of everything; David Garrison and Dan Butler as the gay neighbors she can’t stand, trying to win her over; Richard Masur as, well, The Sisters Rosenzweig’s Merv Kant, who ultimately shows Olive the love of a good alter kocker.

But the best moment in the show belongs to longtime Busch collaborator Julie Halston, as the friend Olive leans on and belittles, who has a wonderful meltdown moment as she finally breaks free of the woman who’s tormented her. “The waters have parted,” she says, building to delicious high dudgeon. “Free at last. Free at last. Oh, dear Lord, I’m free at last!” It’s derivative, sure; but it’s very, very funny.

editorial@observer.com