Renée Taylor knows her way around a joke. Now 86, the Bronx-born comedienne has spent the better part of seven decades making the public laugh as a writer, actress and personality. Those identities coalesce in My Life on a Diet, a winning solo show now on stage at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
With refreshing frankness, Taylor chronicles her two lifelong loves: food and fame. It hasn’t always been a happy relationship. As a young woman, she was expelled from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, told that her weight distracted from her performance as Juliet. Agents implored her to drop pounds in order to make herself more marketable — as a leading lady, a sassy sidekick, a comely comic. It wasn’t until she embraced her true personality, size and all, that she found her greatest success: her Emmy-nominated turn as Sylvia Fine, Fran Drescher’s uproarious, overbearing mother on The Nanny.
Before that, she tried every crash diet under the sun, including tips she picked up from Grace Kelly (yogurt and water only) and Marilyn Monroe (grapes for every meal, some frozen for variety). A beatnik boyfriend introduced her to the Greenwich Village diet of amphetamines for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Vincent Price diet sounded most appealing to me: after dinner, eat a four-course meal as a midnight snack.
There is a humorous element embedded in every diet, whether we want to admit it or not. But Taylor doesn’t only linger on the comedic potential of losing weight. She also considers the sadness at the root of these programs, which are built on a lack of self-acceptance. She lays bare the hard truth that slimming down won’t solve all of life’s problems.
She also communicates the happiness that comes when we stop giving in to expectations. Taylor found it in her long and rewarding marriage to Joseph Bologna, who co-wrote the script and is credited as the director. (Bologna died in 2017.) An Italian with an appetite for romance and red sauce, Bologna shared pasta and passion (and an Oscar nomination) with Taylor over the course of 53 years.
Taylor performs seated, mostly reading from a script. The sedentary nature of the production can sometimes feel static, and Taylor occasionally loses her place. The lack of memorization contributes to a certain unsteadiness in the comic rhythms. But Taylor — who looks smashing in a gold lamé dress by Pol Atteu — has earned some deference and slack.
Although trials and tribulations have defined many points in Taylor’s life, she ultimately describes herself as lucky. She got to write her own story, she explains in the play’s final moments, and she gets to share it with us. For that, we’re the lucky ones.
My Life on a Diet runs through December 15th. For tickets and information, visit George Street Playhouse’s website.