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Leaving ’em laughing: Charles Nelson Reilly

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

SAVE IT FOR THE STAGE: THE LIFE OF REILLY. Starring Charles Nelson Reilly. Directed by Paul Linke. At the Irish Repertory Theatre. Through Oct. 28.

With “Stones in His Pockets” having succumbed to the Broadway blight that followed in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the funniest show currently available to theatergoers,”The Producers” very much included, is quite probably “Save it for the Stage: the Life of Reilly,” the bright and surprising one-man show the actor and director Charles Nelson Reilly has brought to the stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre for a limited run.

The word “surprising” applies here because Reilly, relatively speaking, devotes so little of his stage time to the parts for which he is still best known, at least to regular theatergoers with long memories.

Those roles, Cornelius Hackl, the clerk from Yonkers in search of adventure in “Hello Dolly” in 1964, and, three seasons earlier, J. Pierpont Frump, the scheming corporate climber in the original production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in 1961, are present, right enough, but they aren’t the major focus of what the candidly clever Reilly is attempting here.

If anything, he spends more time on “Bye Bye Birdie,” the 1960 smash in which he made his Broadway musical debut, understudying Paul Lynde and sometimes going on for Dick Van Dyke, as well as playing his own small role, known only as “Mr. Henkel.”

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The vaguely peculiar setting designer Patrick Hughes has provided for the occasion is composed of a wedge of theater seats, six in number, and a large sofa, with a display of white roses to one side and a large glass bowl of gladioli standing behind it. While it’s attractive and colorful enough in itself, it could easily be dispensed with and replaced by a lectern and a folding chair, for the cordially frenetic Reilly to collapse onto in those sporadic moments when he seems to have run out of gas in his eager, earnest, funny and heartfelt effort to let his audience get to know him as completely as possible.

The show, which sometimes feels as though Reilly were making it up as he goes along, has in fact been tried out successfully first in Boca Raton, Fla., and then in three California venues: Burbank, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

There is an improvisatory aspect to “Save it for the Stage,” since Reilly is an agile performer who responds to his audiences like a tuning fork. There’s nothing inherently cozy about “Save it for the Stage,” even though visitors to the Irish Rep will be laughing from start to finish. What they will find on the stage is a man who sometimes seems as angry and as stern as he is so obviously hilarious and generous in terms of dealing with himself and his long life, in and out of the theater.

Take the title. “Save it for the Stage” is a dismissive phrase Reilly’s bigoted, Swedish mother often hurled at her son when she lacked the time or the patience to communicate with him in the years the family lived on Clay Avenue in the Bronx.

Reilly’s Irish-American father was apparently something of a mystery to the family and their neighbors, a small man whose origins, appetites and opinions remained items of curiosity and almost no information whatsoever.

The first half of Reilly’s show is devoted mainly to those Bronx years when, as a rather effeminate, unathletic youngster unable to throw a ball, he was a classic outsider, a situation that ended when he discovered the theater and was cast as Christopher Columbus in a school play.

After an intermission, Reilly turns to his professional life, starting with his enrollment as one of the first students at the then recently founded HB Studio, run by actor-director Herbert Berghof and his wife, actress Uta Hagen.

Reilly does engage in a certain amount of name dropping here, and why not? His colleagues in those early HB days included such potential heavyweights as Steve McQueen, Jason Robards, Geraldine Page, Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, and, it would seem, others almost beyond counting.

The actor is of the opinion that most of his fellow students were unable to act early on, and tells one story about McQueen doing a scene from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” so badly that Hagen made him repeat it week after week, to the disgust of the class as a whole.

Younger audiences will know Reilly from his TV appearances on such series as “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Drew Carey Show,” “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” “Millenium,” plus countless game shows, not to mention “The Tonight Show,” on which he’s appeared 97 times.

But it is on a stage where he is at his best, and most abundantly himself, as will be made clear to anyone fortunate enough to see “Save it for the Stage: The Life of Reilly” during its brief tenure at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

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