When it opened this summer in San Francisco, critics complained that at three hours, Charles Nelson Reilly’s solo show was too long. It is now in New York, at the Irish Rep, and guess what? It’s still three hours, and still too long. Clearly Reilly isn’t interested in trimming the tale of his long life in showbiz to fit the standard format for onstage autobiography — 90 minutes, and no intermission, please.
If there’s something exasperating about the show’s expansiveness, there’s something endearing, too, about Reilly’s insistence on his two full acts of stage time. His celebrity has been peculiar and peripheral — he’s far better known to most for his high-camp guffaw on “Match Game” than for directing Julie Harris in “The Belle of Amherst” or appearing on Broadway in “Bye, Bye Birdie” and “How to Succeed in Business.” While his two-page program bio lists all manner of accomplishments (“Mr. Reilly makes all the power boat training films for the Coast Guard and has received many citations from them…”), he’s never really had his own turn in the spotlight. So why not let him run a little amok? At 70, he’s earned it. And with his sharp wit and scruffily friendly, eccentric stage presence, he’s wonderful company.
The evening’s more appealing first act explores the combination of circumstances, psychological and social, that drove this Bronx-born kid of a disappointed father and a disturbed mother toward the footlights. It is, like all such stories, both familiar in its themes of alienation and arrestingly new in its sometimes harrowing details.
Reilly’s father was a gifted painter who specialized in big movie advertisements; he was so gifted, in fact, that he got a job offer from Walt Disney back when Mickey Mouse was just a twinkle in Walt’s eye. But Reilly’s mother, bitingly drawn here as both overprotective and emotionally withdrawn, nixed the idea of a move to L.A. When the business dried up within a few years, Reilly’s father began a slow decline into alcoholism and mental instability.
There was more fun and games when Reilly and his mother moved in with her relatives in Hartford: Reilly’s beloved aunt had a problem with chronic pain, and when a doctor recommended a brand-new procedure, she became one of the first victims of the lobotomy. His uncle’s idea of a night on the town was a crawl through the city’s funeral homes.
The Dickensian details are described with humor, of course. “I spent my adolescence in an Ingmar Bergman movie,” he wails, and after a particularly grim moment, he adds, “It’s that kind of play.” The fourth wall is cheerfully ignored throughout the evening, a tactic that has its drawbacks: Maybe the audience is so used to talking through Reilly’s TV appearances that they feel free to respond just as spontaneously when in his actual presence. The performer negotiated the occasional intrusions with a cheerfully withering attitude.
The lure of the fantasy world of showbiz let Reilly forget the horrors of Hartford, and he pursued an acting career despite some savage setbacks: As a young actor with some Broadway experience, Reilly was cruelly rebuffed by an NBC honcho, who took one look at him and sent him on his way with a gruff dismissal: “They don’t let queers on TV.”
Reilly suggests that his eventual ubiquity on the tube in the ’70s may have been an unconscious and long-delayed retort to that exec. There is thus more than a little pathos — and more than a little peculiarity — in his obsessively tallying up his weekly TV appearances during this period, which rose to more than 20 at one point. (Reilly’s funniest line on his televised ubiquity is too priceless to quote.)
As the show, which was written by Reilly with its director, Paul Linke, moves into its third hour, it gets bogged down in affectionate tributes to Reilly’s bewildering array of celebrity friends. These include Burt Reynolds and Julie Harris, Jerry Herman and Angie Dickinson and Mae West, the latter drawn with particular vividness. The laughs are more scattershot here; the tone becomes blurrily sentimental. The wonderment with which Reilly discusses his long friendship with Reynolds, whose long-past movie success is recalled with discomfiting reverence, makes one long for more of the sharp perspective he brought to the tales of his childhood.
By the show’s end, it’s clear that Reilly has in some way never really left the second balcony of the theater in Hartford, where he once stood as an usher and gazed in rapt adoration at the stars on the stage. He has had a long and successful career in the entertainment industry, and has been granted the kind of eternal twilit celebrity TV confers, but part of him is still a stagestruck kid on the outside looking in. From that perspective celebrities of all stripes are exotic, fabulous creatures, and their affection for us mortals is an unexpected grace.
We may not necessarily identify with Reilly’s bemused pleasure at his admission into the charmed circle of celebrity, but such is the appeal of his persona that we’re happy for him nonetheless.