On the night I saw Renee Taylor’s one-woman show “My Life on a Diet,” my plus-one texted me ahead of time to ask if she should “save some calories” for a drink or a snack after the performance. “Trying to adhere [to my calorie budget] as much as possible from July-August,” she explained.
She was referring to a meal plan that she’s been attempting, with various successes and plateaus, to adhere to for several years, involving eating almost anything she wants in small portions with an eye on the number of calories in each meal. It’s a lifestyle plan I’ve struggled with, finding more success and satisfaction in basing most of my meals around plants, reserving fatty indulgences to one or two meals a week, and drinking eleven glasses of water a day. (Eight is for amateurs.)
While I watched Taylor recount her life as a “diet junkie,” sharing various meal plans she’s tried throughout the years to make herself fit a thinness standard expected of Hollywood actresses, I was reassured by how reasonable our own meal plans were.
As an actress and a writer, Renée Taylor has never had the luxury of relying on charm and humor alone, but both charm and humor shine in her retelling of important parts of her life, punctuated by a slideshow of images. Sometimes these images are pictures of herself in various stages of her career, of her delightfully fame-seeking parents, and other famous performers she knew over the years. Sometimes the slides show the different diets she and her colleagues have tried, and she describes some of the amusing and disturbing side effects of, say, eating nothing but grapes for several days. (And that’s one of the less restrictive diets mentioned during the show.)
The revelation of each list (and which celebrity followed which diet) soon becomes a predictable part of the show, but we still wait in equal parts anticipation and dread to see the specific details of each set of guidelines for disordered eating. Taylor doesn’t show any bitterness, or even mild snark, about the pressures put on her and her fellow working actresses to be impossibly thin. She approaches her story from the perspective of a woman settled in her career, happy in her longtime marriage and creative collaborations with co-writer Joe Bologna, and old enough where restrictive diets and beauty and thinness standards no longer apply to her.
While “Diet” uses different celebrity meal plans as a framing structure, the show is about much more than eating habits. Taylor’s anecdotes about her family and colleagues in the entertainment industry reveal more than eighty years of interactions with larger-than-life people, Taylor herself included. Occasionally, these anecdotes are slightly meandering and seem to lose the plot, but sometimes they’re the best part of the show. Her stories about one particular actress are touching, revealing the gentle and insightful side of the legend we know as Marilyn Monroe. Taylor imbues each one of her “characters” with this humanity, and the result is a lovely way to spend with the performer I first knew as Sylvia Fine from The Nanny.
My Life on a Diet can be seen at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on 423 W 46th St for a limited 6-week engagement.