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Theatre in Review: Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings) (Imagination Hive/Spin Cycle/the cell)

Jackie Hoffman, Kelly Kinsella. Photo: Hunter Canning

In this new comedy, Jackie Hoffman continues her unchallenged reign as our high priestess of disenchantment. To a world thirsty for the milk of human kindness, she has four words: Snap. Out. Of. It. Indeed, bad attitude permeates every fiber of her being -- that gimlet gaze, rife with suspicion; those lips, plump and pursed in disapproval; and that voice, which captures the exact pitch of a circular saw slicing through aluminum. Surveying the fools and knaves surrounding her, she's a hanging judge, handing out maximum sentences with no time off for good behavior. In fact, she's an alchemist, transmuting bile into sheer hilarity.

As Ariana Russo, a bitter, fiftysomething New Jersey divorcée and community theatre diva, currently appearing in a high-concept production of Fiddler on the Roof ("It's supposed to be a metaphorical statement about Trump and the Russians"), she has quite a few things to get off her mind. Swathed in an "ostrich nest" of a rented costume -- she looks oddly like Miss Havisham, contemplating her cobwebbed wedding cake -- she produces a flask of bourbon and proceeds to get good and stinking, telling all to Margo, a substitute stagehand. It is Margo's task to hoist Ariana, sending her flying above the stage for the entirety of her four-minute appearance as Fruma-Sarah. Ariana can't believe she has been assigned the role of a shrill, aggrieved, meddling ghost, but you know what they say: Direction is 90% casting.

Ariana's discontents are pretty familiar -- a husband who left her for an assistant named Mateo, a fractious daughter, a soul-killing career peddling Jersey mansions to wealthy Manhattan refugees -- but often enough playwright E. Dale Smith gives her a gorgeously cockeyed line to which Hoffman adds a wicked twist. Talking about her Fiddler director, she says, "His all-female Equus was the talk of the community theatre circuit. His all-male The Children's Hour...less so." (Inside that tiny pause lies a bottomless chasm of failure). Her drinking game for Ragtime has one simple rule: "Swig every time an unnecessary historical figure suddenly appears to narrate." To psych herself up for her humiliating day job, she has decorated her office with a poster for Glengarry Glen Ross. "Sometimes," she muses, "I feel like David Mamet just 'gets me'."

Behind the wisecracks, of course, is a much sadder reality, a lifetime of unexpected losses and self-inflicted wounds, aggravated by a sense that her options are shrinking on a daily basis. Worse, her scalding, uncensored tongue has alienated her fellow thespians, putting her in danger of permanent exile from the stage. As the booze takes hold and Ariana sinks deeper into her memories, she comes to understand that time has tricked her, turning her into a near-invisible scold not unlike her Fiddler character. It's a moment of recognition that lands like as a muffled, yet powerful, blow; with truths like that nipping at her consciousness, it's little wonder that she needs the distractions of alcohol and amateur theatricals.

Still, for all the acuity of its writing, Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings) isn't quite a play, a fact that becomes apparent late in the evening when Smith resorts to a wildly melodramatic gesture, followed by a hasty, unconvincing wrap-up. Having created this wittily incisive character sketch, he doesn't entirely know what to do with it. And, even at a brief running time of 80 minutes, the script's endless kvetching wears one down a bit; we begin to see why Ariana's colleagues are starting to avoid her. But the laughter never really sours, thanks to direction by Braden M. Burns -- also responsible for the original concept -- that keeps Ariana and her sorrows in proportion. Proving especially helpful is Kelly Kinsella as Margo, lobbing her lines with skill of a tennis pro and capably staring down Ariana when necessary.

The rest of the modest production is just right, including Rodrigo Escalante's arrangement of stage curtains and rigging; Bobby Goodrich's costumes (especially that Fruma-Sarah getup, wilted from overuse), and the lighting of Dan Alaimo and sound of Germán Martínez, which subtly keep us up to date on the progress of the Fiddler performance.

And it's a treat to see Hoffman, a great clown who typically mops up in supporting roles, taking center stage. (Ariana's scathing comments on Fiddler are particularly amusing coming from Hoffman, who only recently enjoyed a big success as Yente, the matchmaker, in a Yiddish language revival of the Bock and Harnick classic). As Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings) winds down, there is the hint that Ariana might be up for Hello, Dolly! I would be first in line to see that. --David Barbour

(9 July 2021)

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