Theater Review: MY LIFE ON A DIET (Renée Taylor at The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on April 7, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

TAYLOR MADE

If timing is everything with comedy Renée Taylor in My Life on a Diet is proof positive. This revival of her one-woman show, based on her 1986 memoir of the same title, is a master class in getting laughs. She takes sentences that wouldn’t necessarily be funny on the page and makes them soar, most enduringly with a running callback joke about how her mother would introduce herself to celebrities, reaching for a handshake, saying, “I’m Frieda.” Not funny when I write it down, hysterical by the time Ms. Taylor says it for the fifth or sixth time. Even her pauses are genius. Especially her pauses.

As the lights rise, she is singing “The Frim-Fram Sauce,” a novelty song recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Nat King Cole to Danny Kaye. “I don’t want french-fried potatoes, red ripe tomatoes / I’m never satisfied. / I want the frim fram sauce / With ussin-fay, with shafafa on the side…” It’s very silly and funny, but taken at face-value, it also relates to Ms. Taylor’s own lifelong desire for more — more love, more success, and most importantly for the evening’s entertainment, more food. “My name is Renée,” she says, “And I am a food tramp. That’s someone who eats around.”

She tells stories about growing up with parents whose unrealized dreams helped propel her to success, but also underscored her often alarming weight gains and losses, taking her from a size eighteen to a size four and back again. She recounts some of the many, many diets she went on — most don’t need embellishments to get laughs. My favorite was from a movie magazine columnist who advised eating nothing but meatballs.

Studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts she starts the year svelte and lands the lead in Romeo and Juliet. Nerves hit during rehearsals and she gains 40 pounds, “sabotaging” the play according to her faculty adviser, who doesn’t ask her back for a second year. Shockingly (to herself more than anyone) at age 19 she gets a starring role on Broadway, but it opens and closes in one night — though she gets a personal rave in the Daily News. Odd jobs, depression, and yo-yo dieting follow.

At the Actors Studio in the ‘50s, she becomes close friends with Marilyn Monroe, whose grape diet (with some of them frozen “for variety”) isn’t especially successful, but her love and awe for her friend is bittersweet and touching. She starts getting work on television, first in weekly appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, then, additionally, on Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. That gave her the money to try the Cristal Champagne diet, followed by a short-term boyfriend’s East Village bohemian diet of amphetamines.

Almost everything she says and feels about food is funny — but there is an underlying sadness that peeks through, giving the show gravitas. Taylor suffers throughout her life with nagging inner voices that tell her she is unlovable, doomed to eventual failure, and always, always, no matter how thin she gets, she is fat. There isn’t a “big moment” of revelation that turns it all around. She gets therapy, she finds work she loves, and she meets Joe Bologna. We should all be so lucky.

Mr. Bologna and Taylor shared an enviable 53-year romantic and artistic partnership. This show, which they wrote together and which he originally directed (he died in 2017) is their final collaboration. It almost ended before it began. On their honeymoon, she freaked out and considered breaking up. The trouble was, she had been hiding the fat girl within during their six-month courtship. He met her as a thin woman and believed that illusion. She reeled off every delicious food she could think of, all of which she denied herself when they were dating, telling him it’s all she can think about now. Every time she looked at him she saw chicken cacciatore. “Stop it,” he said, “You’re making me hungry!”

Perhaps Taylor’s most enduring claim to fame will be her Emmy-nominated role as Fran Drescher’s mother on The Nanny in the ‘90s. Her real-life obsessions with food caught the writing team’s fancy, and the character grew into an unapologetic glutton. “Do I smell banana fritters with a fresh fruit compote?” she asks the butler as she enters. “No,” he replies. She smiles kittenishly. “Could I?”

Taylor is now age 86. She is physically growing a bit frail, and she stays seated through the show, sometimes reading from her script. No matter. My jaw ached at the end from laughing so much. After a standing ovation she got a little teary. “All the love you give me when you laugh,” she says, “I feel that love and give it back to you.” She is a Hebrew National Treasure.

photos by Jeremy Daniel

My Life on a Diet
Lovelace Studio Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.
ends on April 14, 2019
for tickets, call 310.746.4000 or visit The Wallis

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