"Bermuda Avenue Triangle" brings to life comic monsters that are at once relentlessly funny and just slightly shocking. The spirit is light opera buffoonery with a touch of Grand Guignol. Co-authored by and co-starring Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, the play, opening at the Promenade May 11th, details the metamorphoses of two old crones: the tight-lipped Irish Catholic Tess (Nanette Fabray) and the ur-Jewish kvetch Fannie (Taylor), each of whom falls in love with Johnny, an Italian-American con man (Bologna). He speaks several languages, cooks, dances, and joyously beds down both of them. There's also a strange little rabbi in madras shorts (Manny Kleinmuntz) who appears from time to time.
Modesty plays no role in this production. Consider Taylor's transformation from jowly, orthopedic-shoed hausfrau to vamp, prancing about--her ample bust overflowing--in a costume that evokes the garb a scantily clad porn star might wear while ice-skating.
"I have great affection for my character," says Taylor. "I don't judge her and I never laugh at her!"
Adds Bologna: "You can feel the audience rooting for these women. They may be slightly embarrassed, but they envy and admire their freedom and perhaps wish a Johnny would come into their lives!"
"Bermuda Avenue Triangle" is so comically outlandish that the image of older women in general and mothers in particular--there's lots of mother-daughter stuff here, not to mention Catholics, Jews, and Italian men--is beside the point. Or is it? Is the wild-eyed vision a smoke-screen for stereotypes that would not be accepted in a more low-key piece?
Insisting that the over-the-top sensibility here makes the experience more immediate, Bologna stresses, "All of it is rooted in emotional realism. Without it, the audience wouldn't identify with these characters, be touched by them, or even laugh as much as they do. And no, I don't believe these characters are stereotypes. Anyway, stereotyping is only a problem when you give the impression there is only one type of Italian, for example--a mobster. Or the only Jew on stage makes everyone feel guilty. Stereotypes are never transformed. These characters are rounded and they change."
Interrupts Taylor: "My character is based on my mother. She really did cry all the time and said, 'You've got to grab a bull by the balls' [a line in the play], and then there were the five different ways she said 'oy,' depending on what was being expressed. And she was never afraid to make a fool of herself. Like all of our work, this is about the transformative powers of love!"
And, most central, notes Bologna, "It's about mothers and daughters breaking that umbilical chain and then being able to stand back and forgive!"
Taylor and Bologna's 33-year marriage and 30-year professional collaboration have produced a number of successful theatrical and/or film comedies, including "Made for Each Other," "It Had to Be You," "Lovers and Other Strangers," and "Love Is All There Is." The pair also boasts a roster of acting credits. Better known is Taylor for her current stint as Fran Drescher's yenta-mama on the sitcom "The Nanny."
Chatting with us in an area outside their dressing rooms before a performance, both New York City natives teeter on that thin line between private reality and public image. At moments they suggest their own fictitious creations, interrupting each other and engaging in overlapping dialogue. He is the talkative enthusiast, she the reticent watchful one. "Renee is very intuitive," notes Bologna. "If she weren't an actress she'd be a psychiatrist." They've both been through a range of therapies--Bologna says he finds something useful in all of them--and laid-back is their calling card. At one point, Bologna unceremoniously disappears, only to return a few moments later without explanation. Shortly thereafter Taylor is on the phone with her publicist while we wait.
Still, they seem eager to discuss the genesis of the play. "We wanted to act in something that was fun and we started with the idea of two women in love with the same man," says Taylor. "We then decided it would be more fun to place these women in the last generation. And that's when I realized I was destined to play my mother." There's psychological resonance here, Taylor points out.
Bologna comments: "One of the major writing challenges was to create the most implacable, intransigent women, so that when they change it has that much more power. One woman suffers profoundly, the other is deeply angry. But the audience is able to laugh and love them because both are totally open. They don't have hidden agendas!"
There is no shortage of acting challenges here either. Taylor says her potential stumbling block was coming to terms with the character's physical persona: "I had to learn to hold myself, walk, and sit in a certain way. Older women frequently sit with their legs apart. But as joy comes into these characters' lives, their carriage and looks are transformed." Taylor demonstrates, seductively crossing her legs.
Bologna's role is perhaps even more complex: "I have to seduce the women, and at the same time the audience has to see me making things up as I go along. But I still can't be classified simply as a con man. If that's all they see, I've lost them. I also have to be perceived as tough and intelligent and sensitive!"
Taylor's and Bologna's journeys were not parallel. Born in the Bronx, she was the daughter of a "weatherman," she quips. "He'd stick his head out the window. If it was sunny, he'd sell balloons. If it was raining, it was umbrellas." From the outset she wanted to be an actress, and studied with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Harold Clurman: "To this day, I don't go on stage without hearing their voices."
Taylor turned to writing to create acting vehicles for herself. "The parts I was getting were one dimensional and I wanted to write real characters that I could play. That continues to be true, but the writing now is as important as the acting." Still, she concedes, when she approaches a role, even one she has written for herself, her actress mode takes over. "I start analyzing it from the vantage point of the character's inner life, what's not written!" Abruptly, Taylor excuses herself. It's makeup time and she disappears behind the closed door of her dressing room.
The Brooklyn-born Bologna, whose father worked in a family-run shoe-shine business, talks about his beginnings: "I never planned to be an actor. My only ambition was to get out of the working class and into the middle class. At Brown University I majored in art history. I also appeared in college productions, but my real interest was directing."
By the time he and Taylor met and started collaborating, Bologna had directed a fair share of documentaries and commercials. He was also writing for stand-up comics, and "hating it!" Co-authoring with Taylor was the major breakthrough. "I was now writing about life, family, politics, and social concepts. "Their first collaborative effort, "It Had to Be You," landed on Broadway and launched Bologna's acting career. And there have been plenty of acting gigs ever since, although acting has never been his number one priority: "I can't tell you the number of leads in TV series I've turned down. Of course the money is appealing, but there's an artistic level below which I won't go. Look, I started with steak, I'm not going back to hamburger!" He pauses. "For me acting is an extension of the writing."
At that moment, Taylor swings open her dressing room door to ask if we have any more questions. Now sporting a bouffant grey wig and lips painted to conjure up bulbous orange globes, her uncanny transformation has begun. Her speech has grown subtly sluggish, her expression a bit put-upon, the beginning of weepiness not far behind.