You say you want a good laugh. If you’re truly serious about laughing heartily, you’ll get over to the Theatre at St. Clement’s real fast for Renée Taylor recounting My Life on a Diet. It’s LOL funny. Funny? Why, absolutely every single solitary joke lands, and there’s a rarity for you.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a Taylor fan since her Jack Paar days. For those who don’t know, late-night talk-show host Paar liked to showcase amusing eccentrics as often as he could. His reliably offbeat stable included Oscar Levant, Alexander King, Marta Curro and, of course, Taylor, who reports she appeared with Paar 23 times.
Am I the only one still around who remembers her from those outings? (Am I the only one around who remembers Paar, Levant, King and Curro?) The Taylor night I remember best is the night when she, simply talking about her daily life in the City, told Paar she loved movies and liked to see them at Manhattan’s 42nd Street movie houses.
When there, she had a habit of taking her shoes off and dangling her legs over the railing in front of her. One time, she confided to Paar and his huge late-night viewership, she was experiencing a funny sensation and realized a fellow patron was licking her bare feet.
Who could resist Taylor after that? Not me. And certainly not throughout the current 90-minute one-woman show she wrote with Joe Bologna, her husband of 53 years now deceased.
Arriving on Harry Feiner’s set that’s apparently meant to conjure her luxurious cheetah-hide-inspired home and wearing Pol’ Atteu’s glittery hostess outfit, Taylor explains that she’s been on one diet or another for decades. Now that she’s in her 80s and wants to chat about her dieting past, she needs to sit down, which she does at a nearby desk. From then on she reads from the script—constantly looking up to practice the impeccable comic timing she had to have honed to a fare-thee-well with Bologna, who’s credited with the monologue’s direction.
When Taylor’s mentions her life on a diet, she means it. She calls herself a “food tramp,” meaning someone who “eats around.” She starts when she was the child of Charlie Wexler, a one-time Hollywood extra and full-time trucking man, and Frieda Wexler, a woman who gave into no awe when meeting celebrities like Joan Crawford. Frieda was on a par with them all.
A plump girl, Renée—Frieda named her after silent-screen star Renée Adorée—started on diets as a child. Over the years she moved on (sometimes successfully, sometimes not so) to various diets, such as Lou Costello’s Protein Diet and The Long Island Hadassah Diet. (For those who don’t know, Lou Costello is the Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello.)
Proceeding through reclaimed time—and backed by often-hilarious projections, courtesy of Michael Redman—she recollects her decision to make it big as a performer. Always with reference to the diet she was testing at the moment, she describes her first assignments, her audition as a singer-who-hums for Paar, her bit part in a Jerry Lewis flick (she convinced him to write her in), her complex courtship with Bologna, their collaboration (starting with their stage play/movie Lovers and Other Strangers) and more recent gigs, the most familiar being Fran Drescher’s gluttonous mom on The Nanny.
As she joked and joshed and dieted her way from heavy to slim and back again, Taylor knew everyone. She tells how Marilyn Monroe and she—she was “Sweetie” to MM—bonded at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasburg’s tutelage. Grace Kelly gets into the act. She brings up her palship with Barbra Streisand, who once encouraged old chum Taylor to sing a bawdy song from the audience—with Streisand joining in for the last measures. When she showed up at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, he greeted her in a dressing gown, and she said, “Are you sick?—I could come back.” And the list of the rich, talented and famous goes on, consistently accompanied by knee-slapping punch lines.
Before Taylor finishes, she all but subtly hands out a moral: Forget about the diets and learn to be happy with who you are. She generously hands out a second, not necessarily new show-biz moral: Always leave them laughing. To her immense credit, she does.
My Life on a Diet opened Wednesday July 25, 2018, at the Theatre at St. Clement’s and runs to September 2. Tickets and information: telecharge.com