“A Cheap Date” is an apt title for film/television comedy writer Harvey Miller’s one man show. He spent the whole evening talking about himself. Fortunately, Miller (Academy Award nominee for “Private Benjamin,” Emmy noms for “Love American Style,” “The Odd Couple”) is a funny and insightful storyteller who exhibits a keen, self-observant objectivity as he relates the history of his ascent from nebbishy child of Russian Jewish immigrants to his almost accidental career as a successful comedy writer and occasional actor. Director Robert Walden (of “Lou Grant,” “Brothers” fame) expertly guides Miller through each phase of the narrative, inserting interesting visual and aural aids, never allowing the onstage action to become static or overly talky.
Moving nervously about Douglas D. Smith’s highly functional, pseudo-living room set, Miller dispenses with his childhood rather quickly. Born Harvey Skolnick, East Coast-bred Miller readily admits he grew up as a kind of strange loner. His worried parents considered him to be a “special child.” Summing up his slowly evolving testosterone and increasingly solitary behavior, he states, “I’m dying to be intimate with someone who will leave me alone.”
In hilarious recollections of his college days and military experience, Miller recalls his total obsession with Ann, a blond, “Shiksa goddess” Jewish girl. When his increasingly manic romantic overtures are finally rebuffed, the young man drops out and joins the Army, an experience that, through a clerical error, almost places him in an anti-Semitic airborne unit in Germany. Miller is at his best when relating his struggle to overcome such absurdities of his life as his attempt to explain to his superior officers that he was a clerk/typist and he couldn’t jump out of planes. “I’ll break my typewriter,” he moans.
Once he has dispensed with the early years, Miller grows more effusive as he narrates the very high and the very low points of his career in show business, beginning with his 1960s tenures as a writer for comedian-political activist Dick Gregory, JFK impersonator Vaughn Meader and actor-comedian Sandy Baron. It was his association as manager-writer for Baron that led him to Hollywood and his long association with Garry Marshall (who was in the audience on opening night).
Miller unabashedly drops every celebrity name he can think of as he moves through his experiences as writer-producer of “Love American Style” (“I was a total asshole”), his writing stints on “The Odd Couple,” “Taxi” and beyond, dropping anecdotal gems about how he beat Burt Reynolds on “The Dating Game” and his brief stint as a comedy writer for President Jimmy Carter.
His most poignant recollection is of the making of “Cannonball II,” which led to the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, to spend an evening dining with Frank Sinatra.
The lighting design and musical interludes by Doc Ballard and Steve Tyrell, respectively, do much to assist the seamless flow of the narrative.