In his hilarious stage memoir, Charles Nelson Reilly talks about his days as a Broadway understudy, his death-obsessed uncle, and his memories of Ruth Draper, "the best actor who ever lived." But the story that captures the comedy-spiked bathos at the heart of the show is the anecdote he tells about his father. Onetime head of the art department at Paramount Pictures in New York, he was offered a job by a Hollywood studio executive. Because Reilly's mother didn't want to leave New York, the family stayed put and his father, gravely disappointed, had a nervous breakdown. Who was this studio executive? Reilly says, "His name was Walt Disney."
The Life of Reilly, the solo piece written and performed by the actor/director/game-show fixture, debuted in August with a handful of performances at the Caldwell Theatre Company. This month he has returned for a slightly longer run. The monologue is uproariously funny, as goofy and articulate as its multitalented star, a man whose professional credits are as far-flung as directing productions for the Metropolitan Opera and playing Claymore Gregg, the inept nephew on the '60s TV series The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
But, wait, you ask, who is this Charles Nelson Reilly? Isn't he the guy on Match Game? Well, yes and no. Reilly has led the kind of life that defies Hollywood's narrow pigeonholing. Even more confusing for American audiences, who like things neat, Reilly's talents embrace disparate worlds. On the one hand, his flaky persona and his willingness to appear on network TV have contributed to his image as a loon. On the other hand, he's a gifted director of opera and theater and a renowned acting teacher, whose pupils include Liza Minnelli, Teri Garr, Donna McKechnie, Lily Tomlin, and Christine Lahti, as well as Metropolitan Opera sopranos Renee Fleming, Maria Spacagna, and Roberta Peters.
The central contradictions in his life aren't lost on Reilly, who alludes to them throughout The Life of Reilly. He recalls a visit to a talk show during which the mouths of the other guests dropped open when he recited a soliloquy from Hamlet. "It doesn't matter what I do on Broadway," he adds, "or that I'm the only American director in three years to get a Tony nomination [for The Gin Game]; they go, 'Yeah, but he was on Celebrity Bowling!'"
Not to mention Hollywood Squares. Two seasons ago Reilly played José Chung, a minor (but Emmy-nominated) character on The X-Files and Millennium. He was nominated for an Emmy for a guest role this past season on The Drew Carey Show. But, as theater buffs know, much of Reilly's life has been spent off-camera and backstage. Having won a 62 Tony for originating the role of Bud Frump in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and appearing in the original Broadway productions of Hello, Dolly! and Bye, Bye Birdie, Reilly left New York for the West Coast and network TV. He re-emerged in the '70s as the director-conceiver of The Belle of Amherst, the celebrated one-woman show that won Julie Harris a Tony for her portrayal of Emily Dickinson and set the vogue for solo shows.
He went on to direct other single-actor works about Zelda Fitzgerald, Oscar Levant, and Paul Robeson, to name a few, and is about to launch Staying on Alone, a one-woman show about Alice B. Toklas (and his twelfth work with Julie Harris). This past summer he directed Ruby Dee in her solo show, My One Good Nerve, and is now working with Charles Durning on a one-man show about P.T. Barnum and with Ossie Davis on a solo show about influential black architect Paul Revere. But that's not all he does. The director, a long-time friend of Burt Reynolds who taught and directed at Reynolds's now-defunct theater in Jupiter, recently came through South Florida at the helm of the Broadway tour of The Gin Game. Shortly before that he had directed Die Fledermaus for Opera Pacific.
With a life like this, is it any wonder Reilly's story spills out messily from the stage? During the show he paces back and forth, more than occasionally distracted by backstage noises and noises from the audience, not to mention sounds apparently coming from within his pixilated head. The Life of Reilly is nothing if not the biography of an absent-minded genius, and the structure reflects this: There is no discernible structure. Several biographical threads, however, do appear. Entering stage right to the song "Golden Slippers," Reilly makes the two tiny baby shoes he's carrying dance, recalling how his mother sang to him as a child. All sentimental notions of Mom, however, are quickly tossed to the wind as she emerges later in his portrait as a harridan.
In her place as Reilly's guardian angel is Kate Tresky, the mother of a childhood friend, who encouraged the young Charles to go into professional theater when he was just nine years old. Reilly's depiction of her and her own poignant story (she was a Holocaust survivor) is one of the best parts of the show. As biography The Life of Reilly is more anecdotal than reflective. Through it waltz references to his gloomy extended family, his childhood viewing of the Hindenberg weeks before its famous explosion, and a truly horrifying story about a disaster under a circus tent that has kept him from ever sitting comfortably in the audience of a theater. He recalls several moments from Uta Hagen's acting course, in which he was one of many soon-to-be-famous pupils. "I sat next to a boy named Hal Holbrook. He had a bag with a wig and a black coat. I asked him what they were, and he said, 'That's my Mark Twain costume.'"
Reilly well knows that the magic of doing his own one-man show is that it gives him a project he can do, as Holbrook has, forever. If that's the case, though, director Paul Linke has his work cut out for him. (Reilly was originally going to direct himself, but signed on with Linke after seeing Linke's own solo show, Time Flies When You're Alive, a project about the death of Linke's wife from cancer.) In a perfect world, The Life of Reilly would be trimmed down and perhaps shaped into something that has recognizable narrative threads. For reasons only Reilly knows, his story moves from childhood to adulthood without once mentioning romance or relationships. And the encore patter, in which Reilly retells some truly ancient dirty jokes, really ought to be rethought. But I doubt anyone can rein in Reilly.
The beauty of The Life of Reilly is that it works despite itself. Without a doubt Reilly's ad-libs and digressions are as entertaining as the script. Who cares if he interrupts himself three times during the show's set piece, a fascinating and lengthy story about spending Halloween night becoming progressively drunker with theater icon Hagen? Anyone who can make fun of himself, his mentor, and the audience all at the same time deserves to tell his story the way he wants to, tripping over his own tongue à la Claymore Gregg, as he goes along. When Charles Nelson Reilly is onstage, who needs a perfect world?
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