Interview: Jackie Hoffman Back Onstage, but Waiting in the Wings
Hoffman plays a community theater actor waiting for her big moment as Fruma-Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof.
Jackie Hoffman, Tragedian.
Well, what about Jackie Hoffman, Italian?
Amazingly, you get both in Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings), a new play by E. Dale Smith opening July 8 at the cell on West 23rd Street. "Is a stretch," as Googie Gomez of Terrence McNally's The Ritz might say—and Hoffman extends her range in a way you probably would never have suspected.
As any theater buff can tell you, Fruma-Sarah is an often-overlooked, 169-word character who arrives late in Fiddler on the Roof—in a very late state, as Lazar Wolf's deceased first wife, conjured up by Tevye to convince his wife, Golde, their oldest daughter should marry her heart's desire, the tailor, not the butcher. It's a 67-minute wait in the wings.
Hoffman plays the lady doing the waiting, Ariana Russo, a figurehead in Roselle Park Community Theater, now relegated to bit parts, trying to convince herself that there's no such thing as a small role. A flask of bourbon, which she has preemptively stashed backstage, helps her keep that thought. There's also a new but thoroughly briefed stage manager, Margo, whose job it is to keep her quiet, in line, and hooked up to her flight harness for her screeching streak across the stage.
"I just love this role," Hoffman is quick to confess. "She's a lot like me. I think that's why I was drawn to it. It's very exciting to do. There's funny in it, and there's not funny. It's an emotional roller-coaster of a role. It has a truly tragicomic narrative. There's absolutely everything in it."
It is easy to understand why Hoffman pounced on this part. Character actors of a certain age rarely get a shot at a star role. And, make no mistake about it, this Ariana Russo dominates her tiny portion of the backstage, stewing and kvetching till it is time for her to take off, gradually growing darker in her reflections. This opens a door to Hoffman's seldom-seen dramatic side.
The Italian Russo, like the Jewish Hoffman, has done time on stage playing Yenta the matchmaker, and Russo thinks nothing about it. "Italians and Jews get cast to play each other all the time, and nobody knows the difference," the character shrugs matter-of-factly. "It's like Joy Behar."
The National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene gave Hoffman, inexplicably, her very first shot at Fiddler. Directed by Joel Grey, the acclaimed Yiddish-language production played the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan from July 4, 2018 to December 30, then bounced back six weeks later for extra innings at Stage 42 on West 42nd.
Set in real time, Fruma-Sarah runs a total of 75 minutes. While Russo rants and raves and carries on to a tolerant audience of one, the show is going on simultaneously on stage. Not much of Joseph Stein's dialogue filters through the flats, but the orchestra brings the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick songs into Russo's domain. She either sings along or criticizes the hell out of them.
Playwright Smith has provided Hoffman with lots of laugh lines, which she delivers with her usual caustic bravado. The density of them is on par with her standup stuff, but the overall effect is quite different. "Most of the time, I'm sitting down," she points out, for starters—not only just sitting down, but overflowing in yards of rented cheesecloth and tethered to the fly system.
"It's really a two-person play," says Hoffman. "I'm supported by a wonderful actress named Kelly Kinsella." Both women are allowed moments of vulnerable musings. At the end of Kinsella's one and only spiel, Hoffman pops up with "You know, you talk a lot"—this after a fairly constant outpouring of Hoffman's sorrows. It gradually develops that Russo is a ghost playing a ghost. She has been abandoned by a gay husband and an argumentative daughter. To a certain extent, her community theater has left her out to dry in small roles where she can't do much damage. All she wants is for someone to believe in her, and, sadly, this comes down to an engaged audience.
"Anyone who knows and loves theater will really enjoy this play," promises Hoffman.