For those who prefer laughter to gloom in theater, Renée Taylor’s one-woman show My Life on a Diet is prescribed. Today’s audiences probably know Taylor as Fran Drescher’s overbearing mother on the TV series The Nanny. She and her late husband, actor and writer Joseph Bologna, wrote this funny comedy, which is at St. Clement’s church on West 46th Street, off 9th Avenue. It is a caper, a prank, a modest joke, expanded into 90 minutes of unflagging fun.
The title is innocuous – no, it isn’t an evening of diet lectures, though Taylor has a passion for food. The show is a wacky biographical look at Taylor’s life on stage, screen, television and all that’s in between. Although the play is unpretentious, Taylor and Bologna turn out to be artful creators. Somewhere in their careers they have learned how to piece together fragments of wit and humor and poignancy into a plausible dramatic pattern, making sense of the nonsense that a life in show business entails.
Taylor wrote My Life on a Diet as a book in 1986. Bologna suggested that they adapt it for the stage. Taylor thought it was not such a good idea. She felt, “Who wants to go and listen to a woman who was worried about her weight?” Bologna felt differently. He said every woman – and guy at some point – worries about weight gain. We always wonder about what others see when we walk down a street. Beyond Taylor trying to be a svelte actress, the audience gets a panorama of her life trying to become an accomplished performer, or as she notes, "a star."
She takes lessons at the American Academy of Art, the Actor’s Studio with guru Lee Strasberg, and does a flock of B-movie roles. There were haphazard meetings with dazzling film stars of the day like Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and Joan Crawford. Monroe, who she met at the Actor's Studio, is funny and touching. Her first “paying” gigs were on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar and singer Perry Como’s TV show. Working as a comedian at Greenwich Village’s nightclub the Bon Soir, her opening act was the unknown singer Barbra Streisand.
In 1965, she met and married Bologna and they began writing together. Their hit Broadway play Lovers and Other Strangers became a film and won them an Oscar screenwriting nomination. The next year, they wrote and starred in another success, Made for Each Other. They were married for more than 50 years and penned many scripts, comedy acts and plays. In the 90s Taylor did the HBO show Dream On. A year later, the popular The Nanny began. She's currently hoping the show will have a reboot like Will and Grace and Murphy Brown. "I told Fran we could still be our original ages while the rest of the cast could all age a couple decades."
On stage, Taylor looks great – blonde in a chic beige gown by a Rodeo Drive designer, Pol’ Atteu. Sitting in her Beverly Hills living room with décor designed by Harry Feiner, she glows in rosy lighting by Stefanie Risk. She tells us she is 85, and she hurt her foot, but her dress covers the cast. He wrist is sprained, yet her beige bandage conceals it, making it look like an extension of her fancy ensemble. She still exercises, but now only does the mambo in her swimming pool.
Her audience turns out to be multi-generational. Elders remember her from Jack Paar, middle-age people from The Nanny, and a new generation sees her on Nanny reruns on Cozi-TV and seem fanatic about her. What’s great about Taylor is that she is unlike comics today, whose patter is so adult and raunchy that it can be seen only on cable stations. Although she can be flippant and mildly sophisticated, she never edges towards bad taste. That’s a wonder.
Over the years, Taylor and Bologna honed the show, and it is full of ageless humor that we laughed at in the 60s, 70s and 80s and still makes us laugh today. It’s interesting to watch Taylor throw out her tales and comic zingers nightly, there to entertain us as the ultimate showman.