Then someone's mother ... (Image by Hunter Canning)
If you haven't seen live theater since early 2019, it doesn't make sense, but you could and probably will do worse than to return to Jackie Hoffman starring in a show about the kind of woman you hope isn't seated next to you on a plane trip.
Hoffman, who is at the phase in her career when she is a presence you feel privileged to see in anything, is marvelous in Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings), a new show by E. Dale Smith that isn't just anything, but that for those of us more than passingly interested in aging and the crap shoot that is life, might be better described as everything. If we were younger.
Set backstage at an almost Jew-free local production of Fiddler on the Roof, in which Hoffman's overbearing Ariana sits in a harness, waiting to be hoisted out over an hour into the show as the ghost of Lazer Wolf's wife, Fruma-Sarah, the play gives the veteran character actress a woman who is more than just a character. In Ariana, Hoffman gets a sardonic, lonely divorcée who married gay and whose passion is live theater, even if it is increasingly unrequited.
It's meta, but it bears mentioning that Ariana is also the kind of meaty part Ariana herself would kill to play.
As she bides her time with Margo, a substitute volunteer fly captain (Kelly Kinsella), Ariana spills her guts, slowly replacing them with bourbon from a flask, complaining about her abomination of a rental costume, seething with jealousy over the fake-ass Meryl Streeps of central New Jersey, and eventually veering into deeply personal ruminations about her failed marriage, her troubled relationship with her daughter, her struggle to make ends meet and her dwindling options in the theater.
Ariana's sad-sack speeches resonate with Margo, who is younger but not young, and who is perhaps at the same junctures in her own life when Ariana made the choices she now questions.
As the women compare notes, their stories flesh them out as people who are each at the ends of their ropes — and connected by one, too.
Hoffman mines the complexities of her character expertly, endearing us to her even when she is being self-pitying, morbid or bitter. She gives us all of Ariana, including flashes of resilience, which is why, when Ariana wants credit for not calling her gay ex-husband (which I guess is slightly better than having an ex-gay husband) the F-word, you'll still laugh with her and love her.
Kinsella has less to work with as Margo, but imbues her with empathy as she attempts to corral Ariana's emotional messiness ahead of a six-minute part.
There is often a world of emotion to be gleaned from watching an older woman observing a younger woman, and vice versa, and it is this mysterious world from which Smith draws Frumah Sarah (Waiting in the Wings), an impressively and satisfyingly imagined, performed and staged 75 minutes.
As for Hoffman, who was probably dying for the past year and a half without a stage to inhabit, she picked the right vehicle for creative revival, and in Ariana, she could not have chosen a more interesting ghost to bring back to life.
Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings) runs July 1-25 (official opening night July 8) at the cell theatre (338 W. 23rd St.) Expect to provide proof of vaccination.