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Theatre in Review: My Life on a Diet (Theatre at St. Clement's)

Renee Taylor. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

If you're wondering whether you might enjoy Renee Taylor's at-home evening at Theatre at St. Clement's, let me give you a couple of acid-test examples.

Taylor discusses many weight-loss protocols -- a lifelong subject of consuming interest for her -- during the show. Some of them are authentic; others are made up. She claims to have discovered a magazine story about "a nun in Sicily who lost forty pounds on a spirit diet that came to her in a vision of the Virgin Mary." A try-anything sort of gal, she adds, "I immediately got on The Sicilian Nun's Spiritual Air Diet. After 10 days of no food or water, I did indeed begin to have visions of the Virgin Mary. When I told my mother, she said, 'One thing I've always wondered: Is she much thinner in person?'"

Undecided? Try this one. In Hollywood to shoot a film, she recalls, "I was invited to dinner at the Playboy Mansion. Hugh Hefner greeted me at the door in red silk pajamas. I said, 'Oh, are you sick? Because I can come back another time.'"

I fully admit that both these bits had me chuckling heartily. Maybe you have to be there and hear them delivered in that voice, which suggests a rusty door in need of a little 3-in-1 oil. Or maybe it's her timing -- the pause mated with the look of deadly skepticism -- produced by decades of Alice-in-Wonderland experiences both in and out of show business. Maybe it's that Taylor is just good company. But whenever a bit of impatience sets in with this scrapbook of memories from her lifelong search -- from the Bronx to Hollywood -- for the perfect body type, she pitches a line from low and outside, and damn it if she doesn't land an unexpected laugh.

A blinding vision in sequins, her blonde tresses styled in a feathery meringue, she ambles over to a desk and sits, announcing her intention to stay there all night long, reading her memoirs. She does exactly that, although the desk at which she is seated is designed to obscure the fact that she is using a script. Still, she maintains an intimate, just-us-friends attitude throughout, and she never, ever pushes for a laugh. She knows where they are, and she'll get to them, thank you very much.

Enjoyment of My Life on a Diet surely hinges on having a certain fascination with the many aspects of twentieth-century show business. Among other details, Taylor reveals that she was named after the silent film star Renee Adoree, that her father once appeared in a Tom Mix western, that her mother was always posing on cars "as if Cecil B. DeMille was passing by," and that her parents married because, according to her mother, "We looked exactly like John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil." (Michael Redman's amusing projection design juxtaposes her mom and dad with MGM's most glamorous pair, putting the lie to that proposition.) If none of the names mentioned in this graph mean anything to you -- no points for recognizing Garbo -- this may not be the show for you. In fact, you may be in for ninety minutes of bewilderment.

Taylor won me over, however, with these stories and more about her career, which, after years of struggle, took off when she won a regular berth, holding forth about her crazy life, on the Jack Paar edition of The Tonight Show, in the days when guests were prized for their ability to make conversation, not because they had a movie or book to sell. She talks Jerry Lewis into giving her a part in a film. She beards Lee Strasberg in his den at the Actors' Studio, where he offers her some tough home truths. She befriends Barbra Streisand and Marilyn Monroe; about the latter, she tells a couple of stories that could break your heart.

The show's throughline, about Taylor's obsession with dieting, doesn't provide a terribly strong spine, although there is a priceless bit about three best-sellers -- The Last Chance Diet, The Southampton Diet, and The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet -- each of which was ultimately associated with homicide or death by misadventure. I also won't spoil for you her mother's brazen encounter with Joan Crawford, or her crazed-fan moment with Betty Grable, which ended with that luminous lady backing away in fear.

Redman's projections are filled with lovely things, including shots of many vintage Hollywood stars, images of Taylor on The Perry Como Show, her scene from Lewis' comedy The Errand Boy, a montage of sequences from the sitcom The Nanny (in which she was cast, with uncanny precision, as the mother of Fran Drescher's character), and a clip from Dinah Shore's talk show, appearing with Joe Bologna, who became her writing partner and spouse. Bologna, who died last summer, is credited with the direction of the show, which, I gather, Taylor has been touring with for some time.

Based on the audience reaction at the performance I attended, Taylor, now in her eighties, still has plenty of fans -- probably from The Nanny -- who are willing to tolerate the occasional cul-de-sacs in her sometimes wandering tale. In any case, she is a distinctive talent, and one of the last survivors of a vanishing show-business tradition. Look at it this way: When will you ever get a chance to meet the third-place winner in the Daily News' Chubby Child Contest? -- David Barbour

(26 July 2018)

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