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Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly 

Three hours of nebbish actor Charles Nelson Reilly telling stories about his life is more enjoyable than you might think

Wednesday, Aug 22 2001
Charles Nelson Reilly is a legend, and not just in his own mind: He's originated roles in a number of Broadway shows, including Hello, Dolly!; he's directed productions in almost every medium from TV to opera; he spent the 1970s on game shows. But he is, more important, still a disarming presence onstage, so his autobiographical solo show feels less self-indulgent than it actually is. Reilly spends three hours in witty conversation about his own life -- dropping names, joking, sometimes mistily reminiscing -- but the time slips away like wind because he can immerse himself so completely in every feeling and deliver his punch lines with so much affectionate skill. Reilly is nebbishy, cranky, excitable, grouchy, Bronx-accented, eccentric, and fey: He's like a loudmouthed, American Quentin Crisp. He imitates Mae West with more conviction than Claudia Shear could in Dirty Blonde; he describes early acting lessons in New York under Uta Hagen with (among others) Jack Lemmon, Jerry Stiller, Charles Grodin, and Geraldine Page ("None of us could act for shit"). He jokes about totting up all the times he appeared on game shows during an average week in the '70s (27) and wondering "who you had to fuck to get off." He also plays a vivid, thoroughly convincing wounded sea gull. Parts of the show ramble, but Reilly transcends any glitches with a generous, and truly free, comic zeal. "I'm sorry to even bring this up," he says. "But 51 years ago if you wanted to be an actor you did something unheard of." [Long, suggestive pause.] "You studied."


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