Poor Ariana Russo, stuck stage left in her flying rigging during the Roselle Park Theatrical Society’s production of Fiddler on the Roof waiting for her three minutes in the light as Fruma-Sarah! How did she sink so low? Why do the hefty roles always go to that bitch, Annie O’Brien?
In what might just be the best stage role of her career, Jackie Hoffman plays the multi-faceted Ariana in E. Dale Smith’s Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings) at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre in Chelsea. Sitting in place, attached to a hefty rope, she takes the audience and her co-star, Kelly Kinsella as Margo Peterson, “substitute fly captain,” on a journey of a life not well, but interestingly, lived.
At first it seems as if Ariana, wearing costume designer Bobby Goodrich’s layers of schmattas, might be delivering a standup act in a voice so loud she has to be constantly reminded by Margo to lower her voice, but, as she gossips about the state of community theater in New Jersey it becomes, instead, a diatribe about her own travails, with knowing asides that will make any theater aficionado sit up and laugh.
Her descriptions of the sometimes demented versions of plays and musicals produced by local troupes are both scathing and hilarious, made more so as she sips surreptitiously from a convenient silver flask.
Margo, despite herself, is drawn into Ariana’s maunderings when the subject of children comes up. There the two find camaraderie, despair and limited hope, increasingly when the stories of the horrors of husbands replace those about rude teenagers.
Both have made bad choices, but Ariana’s twenty-six year marriage to Steven is the stuff of gossip columns, entertaining until the human toll is understood. Steven’s secret life outside the marriage came to an end when Ariana confronted him in flagrante. The dissolution of this damaged partnership led directly to Ariana’s need for the camaraderie of Community theater.
Ariana is also glad that she got her real estate license. Of course, she wouldn’t be Ariana if didn’t have very funny tales to tell about the frustrations of selling properties, including a maddeningly funny tale of a supposedly haunted house.
After a number of profane outbursts Fruma-Sarah takes a melodramatic turn near the end, a twist that the playwright rightly moves past quickly saving the play from bathos.
At the end we see a triumphant Ariana whose doubts and troubles melt away as she rises, literally, to see her audience, her public, her friends.
Braden M Burns who directed and also provided the original concept, brilliantly gives the two characters equal weight. He knows how to keep the quips from separating from the characters and also finds each character’s backbone and humanity, all within the limited world of a backstage story. Fruma-Sarah could easily have become a vehicle for Hoffman’s boisterous talents. Instead, Burns clearly understands that this is very much a play and not an act.
The sound design by Germán Martinez is a very important element of the production. The bits and pieces of Fiddler on the Roof heard from the unseen stage provide fodder for Ariana’s musings and give the audience a vital sense of place. His work is first class as is the first-rate lighting of Dan Alaimo who does the impossible: illuminating a space that needs to be dark and pouring the flickering stage lights into that space.
Rodrigo Escalante’s set brilliantly re-creates the tangle of ropes, pulleys and mysterious rows of handles that is the backstage of a theater.
The purposeful plainness of Peterson’s workaday outfit is pitted against the kitsch of Hoffman’s costume which quite vividly defines character. Designer Bobby Goodrich did well.
Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings) (July 1-25, 2021)
Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre
338 West 23rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.SpinCycleNYC.com
Running time: 80 minutes