Review: Jackie Hoffman's Great Dramatic Turn in the Dour Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings)
Hoffman plays a community theater actor getting ready for three-minutes of stage time in this cynical new play.
It takes over an hour for Fruma-Sarah to come flying onstage for three minutes in Fiddler on the Roof, and Ariana Russo won't let us forget it. Formerly one of the doyennes of the suburban, New Jersey community theater scene, Ariana has been relegated to the bit parts, a byproduct of her bad attitude and her tendency to have a few glasses before half-hour. In the hands of Jackie Hoffman, Ariana is a pitiable creature; in the hands of E. Dale Smith, she's a figure for ridicule.
Smith is the author of the new play Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings) at the cell theatre, and Hoffman, the much-loved scene-stealer, is his star. Coming between them is conceiver/director Braden M Burns, who, like the fiddler, is balancing precariously between giving Hoffman a show that plays to all of her strengths and giving Smith a production that takes a cynical pleasure in cutting people like Ariana down a peg.
In her ugly costume and hooked up to the fly harness, Ariana is waiting on stage left for her big entrance, with Margo (Kelly Kinsella, sturdy in a relatively thankless role), the substitute fly captain, perched behind her, ready for her cue. As Fiddler drones on a few steps away (this particular version at the Roselle Park Community Theater apparently finds the Jews as hipsters and Russians as Trump supporters), Ariana is reminded of her life's great disappointments — a gay ex-husband, a daughter that doesn't talk to her, an unsuccessful real estate career — and drowns herself in bourbon. Over the course of the play, the women realize they have a fair amount in common, and both have the power to change their circumstances, if only they wanted to.
Hoffman, always great, delivers an impeccable, multi-layered performance as the bravado-filled, downtrodden Ariana, one that's as hilarious as it is devastating. Most impressive is the way she calculates the character's descent into drunkenness — a slight slur in her voice gives way to a lurch in her body there, and before long, she's basically nodding off. It's one of the best drunk turns I've seen in a long time.
Most importantly, she gives Ariana a soul, one that will be especially recognizable to those who have toiled in the community theater community. She's the person so unfulfilled by normal life that her only joy comes from the adulation she gets on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. If the play is worth it for anything, it's the chance to see Hoffman in a rare dramatic turn that she carries off expertly.
And it would be so much better if the play, which is, at best, a 10-minute sketch expanded into 80 interminable minutes, was up to the standard that Jackie Hoffman sets. But Smith seems destined to make fun of the Arianas at every single turn. The potshots are cheap, the jokes are antique, and an early whiff of misogyny turns into a whole stink by the end. You can tell that director Burns wants to do right by his leading actor, but there's only so much leeway he's given. At least Hoffman's costume, by Bobby Goodrich, is funny, and sound designer Germán Martinez does a very credible job of pumping in the muffled sounds of a bad Fiddler on the Roof every few minutes, so we know where we are in the show.
Of course, your mileage may vary. But for me, a less cynical play, one that was up to the standards of its excellent star, would have been the true miracle of miracles.