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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Taking audiences on a bittersweet but appetizing trip through decades’ worth of weight loss schemes, Renée Taylor’s “My Life on a Diet” delivers on the promise of that title, while distinguishing itself as an excellent source of food for thought on everything from personal loss to self-acceptance to the thorny realities of writing, acting, and relationships. Unlike the cake she poses with on the Playbill’s front page, there are no empty calories here, no ill-advised indulgences — just Taylor, dishing up large portions of intimate anecdotes and well-delivered punchlines (the gal’s got a sense of timing sharper than your most dangerous kitchen knife). She’s so sweet, you’ll eat this show right up, and leave feeling as if you still have room for more.
Making her grand entrance onto a set whose leopard print look pays homage to the tacky excess of her signature role (as mother to the titular sitcom character on 1993-1999’s “The Nanny”), the glammed-up 85-year-old plants herself at a desk and announces she’ll be staying there for the duration (“I can walk, and I can sit. I just have trouble sitting after I walk and getting up and walking after I sit.”). She then puts on a pair of glasses (“for reading, distance, balance, perception, and seeing”), and gives an introduction worthy of its own 12-step group: “My name is Renée, and I am a food tramp — that is someone who eats around.”
Those zingers, witty and insightful while walking the line between self-deprecation and hard-won defiance, are typical of the script, tweaked in its current form by producer Julian Schlossberg and Taylor’s friend, Elaine May, and co-created by her late husband, Joseph Bologna — with whom she had a long marriage and a successful writing/performing partnership. The result is a breezy but substantive memoir that views Taylor’s body image issues through the prism of a hardscrabble upbringing, training with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, consistent work on the TV talk show circuit, and a slew of Broadway and Hollywood credits. Taylor’s had quite a career, and counts at least one megastar as a knew-her-when friend. (Spoiler alert: It’s Barbra Streisand, and Taylor’s account of swapping clothes during their lean years is one of many tales about the rich and famous, supported by photos and video clips that are worth the price of admission on their own). When all is said and done, “My Life on a Diet” reveals its central character as a deft armchair psychologist who has plumbed the depths of her strengths and shortcomings in order to cast an unflinching light on how “my obsession with food has led me to behave in certain ways.”
The apple, it turns out, didn’t fall far from the tree. Bronx-born Taylor (stage name suggested by an agent to invoke Zachary Taylor, when an audition required a Southern accent) was raised by a father, Charlie Wexler, whose debts from compulsive gambling required the family to relocate, in the dead of night, on more than one occasion. But the longest shadow was cast by her mother, Frieda, who grafted her own dreams of show business glory onto her daughter, while insisting the entire family faithfully embrace an ever-changing roster of food and health regimens.
This gives the show one of its best running jokes: Dozens of diet names and their ingredients appear onscreen behind Taylor, as she recalls the shelf life and effectiveness of each new attempt to shed pounds (The Watermelon Diet, for example, is 6 quarts of watermelon juice a day; The Long Island Hadassah Diet, 2 kosher chicken thighs a day). Asking advice from acting school colleague Marilyn Monroe, Taylor adopts The Frozen Grape Diet — and puts on four pounds. “That’s impossible,” Monroe said to her. “If you put on four pounds, you’d have to have eaten 12 pounds of grapes.” Taylor greets that feedback with a comedic shrug, then finds new hope when Monroe suggests The Master Cleanse Diet, which counts maple syrup among its ingredients. Hopes are dashed, however, when Monroe advises, “A drop, not a quart!” But for every memorably eccentric weight loss method mentioned from her career as a “binge dieter,” Taylor noted, in a recent phone interview, audiences hunger for more.
“People tell me what diets they’ve been on,” she said, and ask, “ ‘Why didn’t you mention this diet or that diet?’ ” Then there are the ones that didn’t make the cut. “I thought it was too gross to put in The Pregnant Women Urine Diet,” Taylor said, asserting, “People didn’t want to hear about that one. And The Cabbage Soup Diet. Tyne Daly came [to see the show] and said, ‘Why didn’t you have that one?’ I was just looking for some of the stranger ones… I’ve been dieting, my god, it’s been over 70 years. I’ve been on every one there is — The Beverly Hills Diet, The Pineapple Diet. They all worked, but what happens is, when you go off it, you gain a lot of weight quickly.” So it’s all the more rewarding, then, that Taylor’s relationship with food came full circle when she secured the role that has endeared her to TV viewers for over two decades, and continues to generate new fans.
“It wasn’t written for me,” Taylor said of Sylvia Fine, mother to Fran Drescher’s idiosyncratic sitcom character, “The Nanny.” When casting for the CBS sitcom, Taylor recalled, “they wanted Sheila MacRae to play it; they wanted somebody sort of, Presbyterian. But Fran had seen me in [the 1971 film] ‘Made for Each Other’ and… sensed something real in me.” Early on in the six-year run of “The Nanny,” during a scene that plopped her Queens-based character down in the tony Manhattan digs of Nanny Fran’s employer, Taylor found herself deploying a trick from those many years of dieting and denial. “I have a bad habit in life,” she said, “of eating off people’s plates. So when we were doing the show and I didn’t have any lines, and we had real food, I just started eating off other everybody’s plates.”
That candid moment was a hit with audiences, and Sylvia Fine’s obsession with food became a running gag that fed the natural chemistry she had with Drescher. “It was actually good,” Taylor said, “because I got very fat on the show, and I got a lot of acceptance, when I had tried my whole life to be thin. And I thought, ‘It’s okay to be fat’ — and that it was okay for me to lose weight.”
Asked if the show has a central message, apart from the comedic hook of those zany diets, Taylor didn’t hesitate: “Forgiveness. It’s about how I felt about my body; shame, like there was something wrong with me. So I had to learn about self-acceptance and love. You have to forgive your past. Your fat won’t leave if you don’t forgive it. It won’t leave if you keep it [shame] around. And I had to forgive my husband for dying — and my mother for dragging me to diet doctors. I had to forgive everybody, and I had to forgive myself.” As for how she achieved that, Taylor humbly deadpanned: “You accept that you’re a fool. Once you accept that, then it’s easy… You have to love; what you’re working on, and who you’re working with.”
With “My Life on a Diet” having recently announced the extension of its run through Sept. 2, Taylor noted she is already hard at work on her next act, or acts. There’s been talk of “The Nanny” returning with new episodes, and Fran Drescher just saw Taylor’s show (on Aug. 5). They’re still very close, said Taylor, who noted of the possible reboot, “Luckily, I’m available.” She also pitched an idea to Drescher: “All the kids are now grownups, but Fran and Sylvia are the same age — very late 30s.”
Taylor also told us she’s working on “The Book of Joe” — stories, she said, “of my relationship with Joe [Bologna] and the relationship with him after his death. I still talk to him every day, and he talks to me; and we continue the romance.” Taylor added that she’s working on a three-character play “about Mae West. There’s a young man she’s having an affair with, and then there’s her assistant [Craig Russell], who was a female impersonator who dressed up as her; because when the paparazzi chased her, she’d send her impersonator out as a decoy.”
Focused on the present, Taylor said she still draws on the disciplines she learned while taking classes with the likes of Monroe and Brando. “I still hear Lee’s voice on stage,” she said, of Strasberg, “telling me to relax and focus. Like, say the audience doesn’t laugh at something hysterically. I hear his voice say, ‘Concentrate on the story and on this moment. Don’t run to the next one or the last one — and see how far you can go with it.’ ”
“My Life on a Diet” is performed through Sept. 2 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 W. 46th St., btw. Ninth & 10th Aves.). Wed. & Sat. at 2pm; Thurs., Fri. & Sat. at 7pm; Sun. at 3pm. For tickets ($65 general; $75, premium seating), call 212-239-6200 or visit MyLifeOnADietPlay.com.