Review: ‘Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings)’ Is a Mangled Love Letter

The actress Jackie Hoffman doesn’t so much steal scenes as first beat them up and then abscond with any valuables. It’s actorly burglary...

The actress Jackie Hoffman doesn’t so much steal scenes as first beat them up and then abscond with any valuables. It’s actorly burglary. The scenes usually seem pretty happy about it.

In “Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings),” a new play by E. Dale Smith, premiering at the Cell Theater, Hoffman, an actress with a contortionist’s face and a wit that leaves marks, is typically savage in her attack. The production, a monologue with occasional interruptions, stars Hoffman as Ariana, an Italian American real estate agent and amateur drama enthusiast in Roselle Park, N.J. Kelly Kinsella plays Margo, an aggressively bland volunteer stagehand who has to ready Ariana for her big entrance in a New Jersey community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The theater has cast Ariana as Fruma-Sarah, the dead wife of the butcher Lazar Wolf. She has one number, “Tevye’s Dream,” late in Act I. In “Fruma-Sarah,” which unspools in real time, Ariana spends the hour or so before she needs to go on treating Margo to a litany of complaints as she nips less than surreptitiously from a flask. (Think of this as a one-woman, low-budget “Bottle Dance.”) The play is at least 90 percent kvetch. And happily no one kvetches like Hoffman. She’s a born ham, if ham were kosher.

But if “Fruma-Sarah” is a love letter to theater, it’s the kind of letter that arrives late and mangled, in a cover envelope with a perfunctory apology from the Postal Service. It has a lot of lines built to force an insider audience to chuckle — like one about an all-female “Equus” and an all-male “The Children’s Hour.” Yet it offers meager insights about theater as a metaphor for life or role-playing as respite or why any sane person would want to put on a musty rented costume and bang out a triple step for friends and family in the first place.

The sour 70-minute show is directed by Braden M. Burns, who is also credited with the original concept. Are the jokes cheap? They seem heavily discounted. Its politics, while ostensibly liberal, skew conservative. And that’s fine. Or it could be. Likely not everyone in Roselle Park votes a progressive ticket. But who thought a zinger about the “pronoun police” should make it into previews? As exciting as it is to be back in a room of people mostly laughing together, it is still worth asking who is doing the laughing and whom is being laughed at. Like a very tall boxer, the play mostly punches down. It also gives Margo next to nothing to do.

In most shows, Hoffman has played the second (or third or fourth) fiddle. Before the pandemic, she had the role of Yente in a Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a larger part than Fruma-Sarah, barely. So there’s great pleasure in seeing her take center stage, even if the stage of the Cell, a theater on the first floor of a reconfigured Chelsea brownstone, has the approximate dimensions of a beach towel. But the space is too small for Hoffman, a woman built to carp so that the rear mezzanine can hear.

Still, she treats the material with absolute seriousness, dignifying the bits that don’t deserve it, swerving into an emotionalism that the script doesn’t remotely earn. Better are the lines that feel written just for her, like, “No one has ever described me as ‘nice.’ Ever.” She doesn’t have to steal the scenes this time, they are hers already, even as she spends them hooked into a flying rig, confined to a chair. She’s a big presence, which somehow makes “Fruma-Sarah” feel even smaller.

Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings)
Through July 25 at the Cell, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: ‘Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings)’ Is a Mangled Love Letter
Review: ‘Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings)’ Is a Mangled Love Letter
Newsrust - US Top News
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