Renée Taylor Flips Through the Pages of My Life on a Diet
Renée Taylor measures her life in diets — and probably has tried more than 525,600 of them. She walks us through of handful of her favorites in My Life on a Diet, the solo show (based on her autobiography) that Taylor is now performing at the Theatre at St. Clement's. Some of the diets you've heard of. Most you haven't. She reminisces about Lou Costello's Protein Diet and the Grace Kelly Yogurt Diet — and then the less auspicious Long Island Hadassah Diet and Aunt Mitzi's Whitefish and Papaya Diet.
Not all got her in Jane Fonda form (she did in fact make a failed attempt at joining Jane Fonda's exercise school), but together, they map a life full of insecurities and devoid of inhibitions. The friction between those clashing parts of herself has always been the key to Taylor's comedic success and remains the reason why it's worth your time to watch her park her sequined behind in a throne of animal print and read her memoirs.
I do very literally mean "read." My Life on a Diet is more a fireside chat than a play, though we are certainly placed in the world of Renée Taylor with scenic designer Harry Feiner's gaudy living room and costume designer Pol' Atteu's sparkling gold gown and fake jewelry, curated perfectly to the taste of the real-life Sylvia Fine. Accompanied by the occasional photo, video clip, or itemized diet (projections provided by Michael Redman), Taylor walks us through her life as a fame-seeker-turned artist: from her third-place victory at the Daily News Chubby Child contest to her nightclub days with Barbra Streisand, her Lee Strasberg classes with Marilyn Monroe, her Oscar-nominated collaboration with Joseph Bologna (her husband of over 50 years) on Lovers and Other Strangers, and of course, her Emmy-nominated turn on The Nanny. No topic is too sacred for Taylor to joke about — not her failed romances, her expulsion from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for being a too-heavy Juliet, or her expensive addiction to Cristal (part of the Vogue Magazine Champagne Diet). She does, however, reserve a little extra tenderness for two characters: her late husband and her mother, the great Frieda Wexler.
Taylor talks about her mother like an undiscovered legend — a fearless broad who loved to pose on car hoods like a movie star and felt entitled to be on a first-name basis with everyone from Joan Crawford to Jesus Christ. Frieda's unrealized ambitions of stardom were undeniably passed on to her equally boisterous daughter, but if there's any resentment in that legacy, Taylor betrays none of it. Only love and a desire to fulfill both her parents' dreams make it into her public memoirs (her father, Charlie, also set out to be a star of silent-movie Westerns, but only made it as far as a smoke-filled wide shot).
And then there's Joe. Bologna cowrote the script to My Life on a Diet with Taylor and lent direction before he died in August 2017 — so aside from featuring heavily in stories from 1965 on, his humor and their partnership are embedded in the fabric of the piece. Taylor opens the show with a list of her ailments along with a reenacted conversation with her doctor, who bewilderedly asks her why she would put herself through the strain of an off-Broadway show. By the end, the answer is clear — and for once in her life, it has nothing to do with a diet.