“Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings),” at the Cell Theater through July 25, begins as an affectionate poke at theater folk, offering nearly everything theatergoers returning to live, in-person theater could hope for – above all, Jackie Hoffman. Her role in this backstage comedy that cleverly riffs off of “Fiddler on the Roof” seems tailor-made for her caustic comic delivery. But by the end of this 75-minute play by E. Dale Smith, “nearly everything” feels a tad too much.
Hoffman portrays one Ariana Russo, dedicated member of the Roselle Park, New Jersey community theater, stuck backstage in a cheesy outfit during its production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” While once Ariana played Yente (as did Hoffman, gloriously, in the much acclaimed Yiddish-language revival of “Fiddler”), she’s now reduced to a bit part — the ghost of Fruma-Sarah, the dead wife of the wealthy old butcher Lazar Wolf that Tevye’s daughter does not want to marry. The character gets a single scene, flying around in Tevye’s nightmare, which is an hour into the musical. What this means is that Ariana has to wait around in the wings harnessed to the rope that will lift her above the stage. To add to this indignity, the regular fly captain has taken the night off, so she has to “entrust my safety to somebody I’ve never met,” Margo (Kelly Kinsella), who turns out to have an MFA in theatre design from NYU, although she’s working as a receptionist for a veterinarian.
That’s one of the many knowing details about the realities of the theater world.
Some of this knowingness manifests itself in delicious inside jokes. Before “Fiddler” begins, we hear the voice “on stage” of Annie O’Brien, the board president and frequent star of the theatrical society talking about the shows of their forthcoming season, one of which will be West Side Story. “I’m excited to announce that our production will be color-blind cast, so I will finally get to fulfill my dream of playing Anita.”
Once the musical begins, Ariana chats (too loudly), occasionally allowing Margo to get a word in, telling stories about her past roles and about the other players, many of whom she resents — especially Annie O’Brien, whom she obviously envies, but she also disdains Annie’s attitude, which she sums up as: “’Well, it doesn’t really matter as long as everybody’s having fun.’” Ariana takes the work seriously, she has experience, she knows what makes a show good. “But they don’t get it. You spend some 15-odd-years, giving them your blood, sweat and tears, and then one evening, you happen to throw a prop in the general direction of the stage manager, and suddenly you’re ‘difficult to work with.’”
Ariana also talks about her life, which helps explain why she may be difficult – a daughter who doesn’t talk to her, an ex-husband who turned out to be gay (“Nobody tells 17-year-old girls that they shouldn’t fall in love with boys who do musicals”), a drinking problem.
Her conversation may seem random, even stream-of-consciousness, but the playwright is actually adroitly synchronizing it to the musical happening on stage. We hear a snippet of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” coming from the stage, and Ariana talks about her divorce. We hear “If I Were A Rich Man,” and she talks about trying to make ends meeting working as a realtor. We hear “To life, to life, l’chaim” (a toast, after all), and she talks about her drinking.
This is impressive, but it is also overdone. The play starts to feel too long, as if the playwright kept on thinking of ways to hook it to moments in the three-hour musical. This might have worked better had Smith kept “Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings)” a light comedy, with the suggestion of darkness in their lives (Margo too has her troubles) kept at the edges. But the play turns heavy-handed and obvious, especially about Ariana’s drinking. There is a long monologue in which Ariana begins every sentence with “I drink because….”
But if “Fruma-Sarah” doesn’t ultimately take flight the way Fruma-Sarah does at the end, Hoffman et al reminded us what it’s like to be in the same (small, Off Broadway) room, sharing the same air, experiencing theater together, and that was high enough.
Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings)
Cell Theater through July 25
Running time: 75 minutes
Tickets: $35 – $57
Written by by E. Dale Smith
Directed by Braden M. Burns
Lighting by Dan Alaimo
Sound by German Martinez
Set Design by Rodrigo Escalante
Costumes by Bobby Goodrich
Cast: Jackie Hoffman and Kelly Kinsella