by Samuel L. Leiter
Sometimes theatregoers need a break from a diet of high protein shows like Angels in America and want something that goes down easily, theatrical comfort food, so to speak. If that’s you, may I suggest you binge on My Life on a Diet, the comical sundae topped with a cherry of sentiment being served up at St. Clement’s by the eternally delicious Renée Taylor.
Taylor (née Wexler), now 86, has been an acting/writing comedic treasure for so long she’s entitled to be called a legend. That legend shines brightly here, partly because of the contributions of Joseph Bologna, the Bronx-born star’s Brooklyn-born husband and creative partner, who died last year at 82. Bologna directed and co-wrote My Life on a Diet (based on Taylor’s 1987 memoir).
Taylor, comfortably zaftig after finally giving up on her search for the perfect diet, appears in a peach-colored, sequined gown, designed by Pol’ Atteu, her complexly coiffed blond hair piled high atop her head, giving the impression of a cross between your glamorous Aunt Sadie dressed to the nines for a fancy bar mitzvah and Mae West. Harry Feiner’s scenic background suggests a lavishly decorated apartment, adorned with accessories like an elaborate Chinese urn and a porcelain leopard.
Taylor, who sits throughout at a small desk, clearly knows most of her lines but doesn’t hide that she’s reading a script, even though it’s largely obscured from view by tchotchkes. Upstage is a screen on which nostalgic projections (designed by Michael Redman) of personal and family photos as well as clips from Taylor’s films and TV shows are shown. Occasionally, there’s a pause as she seems to be grasping for a word, and her softened voice (amplified) lacks the force it once had, but her timing is intact, her jokes ignite guffaws and chuckles, and she’s every pound the Renée Taylor fans will be paying to see.
My Life on a Diet, which begins with the star offering a rendition from offstage of the jazz favorite, “The Frim-Fram Sauce” (“with shafafa on the side”), offers a scrumptious smorgasbord of tasty and, I’m happy to report, tasteful anecdotes encompassing her life from childhood through her years as Sylvia Fine, Fran Drescher’s overeating mother, on TV’s The Nanny.
The frim-fram sauce flavoring Taylor’s meaty stories about her life as a “food tramp” (“someone who eats around”) is her eternal struggle with her weight as she attempted to acquire the body of a movie star. Her non-polemical account, which lets the audience make up its own mind about standards of feminine beauty, is peppered with autobiographical details assisted by projected images of her at different levels of svelteness and excess avoirdupois.
We also see a succession of diets posted, some famous, like Tarnower’s Scarsdale Diet, some bizarre, like the Master Cleanse Diet she learned of from Marilyn Monroe. That one, which comprises water, lemon, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup, sounded good to the syrup-loving Taylor until Marilyn told her it required a drop, not a quart!
Like many geriatric comedians, Taylor finds abundant humor in the aches and pains of her aging body:
I can walk, and I can sit, I just have trouble sitting after I walk and getting up and walking after I sit . . . And then, forgetting why I wanted to sit in the first place.
Most of her show, though, is a warmhearted look back on her family, career, and talented late husband. She gets plenty of mileage, for example, from her colorful father, Charlie, who once was an extra in a Tom Mix movie, and spins laugh-worthy gold from Frieda, her hilarious, outspoken, film star-loving mother (who named her daughter after silent screen star Renée Adorée). A running gag comes from her mother’s habit of greeting celebrities by offering her hand and saying, as she did with Dame Judith Anderson, “Dame . . . Frieda!”
Taylor’s gradual rise to fame on stage and screen is documented, of course, with delightful stories about stars she met and/or befriended along the way, mainly Monroe, her fellow student at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. Among the many other names she drops as she climbs the ladder of fame are Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, and another Jewish New Yorker, Barbra Streisand. She also recalls her visits to a shrink, discussing one of her prime complexes, how to balance her hunger for fame with her artistic thirsts. Her overall demeanor is friendly and benign, and dirty laundry about her own life or others remains in the hamper.
Renée Taylor cooks up a light, frothy soufflé in My Life on a Diet. Not only can you watch it without gaining weight, you may even, as the show’s ads say, “drop 300 calories laughing.”
Photos: Jeremy Daniel