A 2003 Chat With Valerie Harper About 'The Allergists's Wife,' Rhoda


Sad news: Valerie Harper died Friday at the age of 80, more than six years after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. I interviewed Harper several times over the years. Below is a Hartford Courant interview from 2003 when she was touring with “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”

By Frank Rizzo
A group of women of a certain age with big hair and abundant jewelry are attending a matinee performance of "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," which stars Valerie Harper.

"Val looks good," says one.

"She sure does," says another. "Val's lost a little weight, but after all, she's working on stage a lot, with eight performances a week."

"And did you see Val on 'Rosie'?"

"Yes," her friend says. "Wasn't she funny?"

You might think these women have a personal connection with the actress, and in a way, they do. But they aren't her best friends or close relatives. Their first-name familiarity comes from years of fan affection beginning, no doubt, when the actress played Rhoda Morgenstern on TV's "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and later with her own spin-off, "Rhoda."

Harper carried that feel-good and intimate identification with her through scores of other parts on TV and in films and stage work. Most recently the fans followed her to Broadway when she succeeded Linda Lavin in this Charles Busch comedy, and again now as she tours around the country in the play. The production comes to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday through Sunday and then returns April 1 to the Shubert Theater in New Haven, where the tour will end.

Talking to Harper over a late lunch is like reconnecting with an old buddy . "How have you been?" she says with a burst of happy energy upon your arrival at the restaurant. "It's so good to see you again. You lost weight! Are you hungry? Can I get you anything?"

Part of the familiarity comes from Harper's last stay in Hartford in 1997, when she premiered her one-woman show at TheaterWorks, "The Dragon and the Pearl," about writer Pearl S. Buck. (Since then, she and director Rob Ruggiero have extensively reworked the show, now titled "All Under Heaven," and it has had runs off-Broadway and around the country.) But part of that familiarity comes from her approachable, expansive and direct personality, which makes one feel so immediately connected .

This is the first time Harper, 61, has toured the country, and she says she is discovering that connection between herself and audiences who may have never seen her in person, just from her beloved TV character.

In some ways, audiences might see her stage character as having more similarities with the pretentious character Phyllis Lindstrom in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" than the more grounded and self-effacing Rhoda Morgenstern. Her character in "Allergist" is Marjorie Taub, an upper-middle-class woman who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown because she feels that, since her children have left the nest, all her efforts of self-improvement are empty gestures. When her glamorous childhood friend Lee (Jana Robbins) suddenly and mysteriously appears at her door of her Upper West Side home, it upends her life and her relationships with her allergist husband (Mike Burstyn), her scatalogical Jewish mother (Sondra James) and even her doorman (Anil Kumar).

"Charles Busch has hit a nerve with this play," says Harper, "especially with women. And when was the last time you saw a play with three major hilarious central roles for women over 55? One of the women is even over 80."

Harper says audiences at the matinees -- which are heavily composed of women without their husbands -- "scream with laughter. They know these women up on stage very well. They know there's a lot of truth in the play -- as well as laughs."

And even if the audiences around the country don't identify specifically with the New York references, Harper says she feels "there's a lovely feeling about New York around the country. I think people in other states are comforted to see this play about these New York people and to know that they're still getting by OK."

Harper first took over the Broadway role in late summer 2001, and when 9/11 came and New York was in shock from the terrorist attack, Harper -- who was born and bred in New York -- was among those who rallied the theatrical troops. Because Harper's was the most recognizable name on stage at the time , she took a prominent role in promoting Broadway and the can-do, we're-not-down-yet spirit of New York. Harper, a long-time social activist, even volunteered to waive her salary if it meant the show would continue. (It wasn't necessary, but the gesture further added to the morale of a struggling city at the time.)

Harper recalls the first time the show resumed after 9/11, when she wondered how people would respond to the comedy. She even questioned if they could laugh again. But when Harper delivered her first sure-fire laugh line shortly after the play began, the audience responded appreciably. "The show was almost a respite for people," she says, "because to these New Yorker characters on stage, 9/11 did not happen."

Identifying With Marjorie

Harper says she identifies with her character's grappling with life's questions, such as who we are and what we want to be and what we should have done with our lives.

"Part of Marjorie I understand completely," says the four-time Emmy winner. "I feel there's great pressure on us -- to read all the newspapers, to read all the books, to do all these things. And no matter how much you do, it's never enough. But when are you going to do it all? But it's OK if you don't, and the older I get, the more OK it gets. Decide what you want to do, make your priorities, understand that you're going to miss out on things and just enjoy life as it is. I agree with what Charles is saying at the end of the play: Get off the couch. Don't miss a moment in life. It's not coming again. This is your moment. And though you might not have a 'Father Knows Best' family, these are your parents, this is your husband and count your blessings."

When asked who among her childhood friends would she like to see knock on her door, Harper was quick to name several.

"Elaine Gray from Jersey City. We were 12 or so, and we laughed together like anything. She was very funny, with a family that I loved. Then there's Barbara Monte from ballet school. And Juanita Avery, who wasn't Latina despite her first name. She was my girlfriend in second grade at St. Andrew's. She had a younger sister Gail. I would love to see them both again."

And what would they say about her?

"'You're a failed ballerina,"' she laughs. "But I think I'm very much the same as I was then. I always got in trouble for talking in class. I had this nun -- you would love this -- who would come up to me with a raised hand, and she would say, 'My guardian angel is holding back my hand from striking you, Valerie Harper, if you don't stop talking in Mass.' I remember looking at her and thinking at the time, 'Oh, my God, that's really good.' There was a time when I became a little prudish, lips pursed together, the ballerina dancer-to-be who would say things like, 'Elvis is disgusting.' But that was when I was 11 or 12. By 13, I thought Elvis was pretty cool.

"I loved to laugh, and I was always talkative and energetic. I was always running around and jumping and doing things. My mother used to say, 'Valerie, don't overdo.' But later in life, I thought, well, maybe the rest of the world is underdoing. You look around and see all the messes -- listen, there's plenty of beauty and glory and magnificence, too -- but the messy areas, we're not doing enough to make right."