THE BASICS: “My Life on a Diet” is a one-woman show starring Renée Taylor (the mother on “The Nanny”) running now through Sunday, November 16th at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main Street in Buffalo (next door to Shea’s Performing Arts Center). The show runs 95 minutes with no intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: If I told you that an 81 year old woman sits in a chair and reads her memoirs accompanied by a slide show I’m afraid you’d think “huh? …that’s all the show is?” But it works because of the particular woman in that chair. Just imagine 95 minutes with one of your favorite guests sitting there on a TV talk show without the host butting in and you’ve got it.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Although she had success in the movies, great success in writing, producing, and acting with her husband of 49 years, Joe Bologna, and is now best known by millions as the overbearing and overeating mother to Fran Drescher on TV’s “The Nanny,” remember that Renée Taylor was a paid regular guest, week after week, on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. The woman can tell a story!
And it’s usually self-deprecating. While many involve stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, or Marlon Brando she never seems to be name dropping. The strong impression is that we’re hearing from a close friend who might begin with “you won’t believe who I just ran into!” And a lot of those stories are bittersweet.
This is a highly entertaining show, and of course that’s why you should go, but you should also go because in our youth dominated culture you probably don’t get to hear from too many 81 year olds who can open a window on the early years of movies and television. And be funny too!
In a telephone interview with Ms. Taylor, after we had talked about her years with Lee Strasberg in his Actor’s Studio (think Brando and “method acting”) she said to me “ask me about the most important element in comedy.” So I said “Okay, Renée, what’s the most important thing in comed-TIMING!” And that’s what she has in spades. Not only in her delivery, but in the timing of the slides.
Stage right the set is decorated with an attractive room dividing screen, some plants, a writing desk and chair, and on stage left there is a slide screen, constructed to make each slide look as if it was in an old photo album (with the black tabs in each of the four corners). When there is text, it’s black text on a white background, but still reminiscent of old silent movie text.
Half of the slides are old family photos, but almost always presented in juxtaposition with a publicity photo of a star that Renée’s “stage mother” thought Renée looked like, she could be, or she should emulate; or else a star who was thinner!
The other half of the slides are all the diets Renée went on. Again, it’s all in the timing. Masterfully done.
I’ll leave you with some trivia. Renée Taylor was born Renée Wexler in the Bronx in 1933 to Frieda (Silverstein) and Charles Wexler. The Renée came from Frieda’s favorite 1920s silent movie star Renée Adoré. The Taylor came from Renée’s desire to win a part in a Tennessee Williams play, leading her to choose a famous name in southern history, that of President Zachary Taylor.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!