Renee Taylor is flat-out funny. Make that hilarious.
Storytelling has been her business for years. As chronicled in her memoir recitation, “My Life on a Diet,” at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse through Sunday, December 15, Taylor has been talking comically about her life since her 1960s breakthrough as a regular guest on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show.”
She is also an accomplished writer, with multiple awards and nominations to prove it. “My Life on a Diet,” co-written and originally directed by Taylor’s late husband of 53 years, Joseph Bologna, is a breezy, entertaining amalgam of all Taylor and Bologna’s talents and a laugh-a-minute rundown of the seasoned actress’ extraordinary experiences — and not only with food or the avoidance of it.
Her attempted diets, outlandish and practical, successful and otherwise, provide a diverting leitmotif in a witty, wily sharing of all that contributed to her sustaining a constant career for seven decades.
Taylor doesn’t pretend to be putting on a show or that “My Life on a Diet” is a play of any kind. She simply relates the myriad things that happened to her, from being dismissed by Columbia Pictures early in her career for falling asleep while on camera during a nightclub scene, to deriving satisfaction from her accomplishments and enjoying them for their own sake.
Taylor’s art is in being artless. She’s like the aunt who makes you afraid to take sips of coffee while she’s talking because you never know if you’ll be able to swallow it before she makes her next side-splitting comment.
A master storyteller, writer, and comedian, she is canny about leaving that nanosecond pause between what seems like a simple ending to a thought and the appended zinger. She is deft at irony and at that time-honored Jewish trait of finding tragedy in luck and hope in calamity. She senses the humor in a situation and expresses it. Not by pushing jokes or seeming to write for laughs but by having dead-on timing.
And while name-dropping is a major sport in Taylor’s monologue, it’s never cloying or obnoxious because she really knows the celebrities of whom she speaks and talks about them so personally and warmly.
Her relationships with superstars such as Barbra Streisand and Marilyn Monroe are real, and she brings the legendary alive as individuals on a normal scale.
We learn that she and Monroe attended the Actors Studio together and forged a bond. She also tells how effective and affecting Monroe was as an actress and how terribly the star suffered from stage fright.
In talking about Streisand, who opened for Taylor at Village boites before Barbra made it big, she tells a story about how Streisand was introducing celebrities at one of her concerts. When Elizabeth Taylor was cited, the movie star rose and waved to the audience. When Renee was announced, she remained seated while calling out, “Yeah, I’m here.”
That’s another of Taylor’s tools, her ability to be simultaneously a lady and a coarse Bronx girl who takes no nonsense and assumes no airs. She used that during her famous stint on “The Nanny,” her character, Sylvia, turning from crass to class on a dime when necessary.
Even the set for “My Life on a Diet” is a shrewd combination of plush, mock elegance, and unapologetic kitsch. Taylor delivers her monologue while sitting on an oversized leopard cushion. She is surrounded by the intentionally gaudy — note the stage-right leopard on hind leg with paws and jaws set ferociously — and dressed in a gown that is both glamorous and reminiscent of a grandmother at a Bar Mitzvah.
Details of her career are fascinating. Along with other contradictory traits, Taylor blended nerve and shyness, an ability to be the life of the party and to abstain when drugs or drunkenness took over, and a way of accepting good fortune while never letting it get to her head.
Her stories, even when they are straightforward, are always interesting. It was fun, as well as funny, to hear of her start on the Paar and Perry Como television programs, of Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg wanting to know if she wanted to be an artist or be famous, of how she talked film comedian Jerry Lewis into writing a scene for her, and of how, through it all, she was that Bronx child who, influenced by her mother, Frieda Wexler, was attracted to movie stars and wanted to be like glamorous film star Rita Hayworth even while writing parts for herself that were nothing of the Hayworth kind.
To watch Renee Taylor is to believe you know Renee Taylor, and to know Renee Taylor is to love Renee Taylor. There may be a snob or two who doesn’t appreciate what she’s doing in “My Life on a Diet,” but trust me, Taylor knows what she’s doing, and it’s all aces.
My Life on a Diet, George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, December 15. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays (except Thanksgiving), 2 p.m., and Sundays, December 1 and 8, 7 p.m. $25 to $100. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.