You don’t have to know Fiddler on the Roof to appreciate Fruma-Sarah: Waiting in the Wings, the exhilarating world premiere comedy starring Jackie Hoffman (Birdman, The Politician). It helps, through.
I’ve known the musical almost my whole life: my introduction to the magic of theater was seeing my babysitter transformed into Golde in her high school production of Fiddler. (That wasn’t Connie, I insisted to my parents in the car on the way home. I was absolutely sure of myself. Makeup, wig, and, well, acting had utterly fooled me.)
In Fruma-Sarah, we find community theater veteran Ariana Russo (Hoffman) playing not the major role of Golde, but the small though crucial one-scene part of Fruma-Sarah. In Fiddler Tevye conjures Fruma-Sarah to trick his wife (Golde) into being OK with breaking with their culture’s arranged-marriage tradition for their eldest daughter. But it isn’t Fruma-Sarah’s reason for being that matters here, it’s her essence. For Fruma-Sarah is a ghost, and not even a “real” ghost but a figment of a made-up dream.
We’re backstage, and snatches of song tell us the show is underway. Ariana sits waiting, hooked onto the rope that will let her soar onstage for her scary scene. A substitute fly captain, Margo (Kelly Kinsella), has been brought in for the evening to operate the apparatus. At first distrustful of the stranger, Ariana soon finds Margo a tolerably willing listener. And oy vey! does Ariana have a lot to say. Hoffman sinks her teeth into the character with hilarious gusto. As a single woman “of a certain age” Ariana believes she can say whatever she wants. But, as we soon learn, that’s been her downfall too.
Emerging from the seemingly petty jealousies and resentments that drive her to drink and bloviate – and from behind the hilarity – is the true pathos of a lonely woman who feels her best years are behind her with little to show for it: “just me at home, just me backstage.” Fruma-Sarah is the perfect role for her state of mind, and theater the perfect metaphor for the trajectory of life as she sees it.
She points to the shallowness of most of the stage roles available to women as drawn by male writers. Even at younger ages, she asserts, women can play only certain pat roles. And now, “I’m lucky to get Third Woman from the Left these days.” Ultimately, you’re a ghost.
Along the way Ariana skewers everything from her ex-husband to her burdensome costume to Facebook culture. She’s done 40 shows in 15 years, yet mispronounces the names of the characters in the one she’s in right now. She’s a “type” all right, but in Hoffman’s hands she’s also an original.
Kinsella is quietly convincing as Margo, the foil to the force of nature in her charge. She has deferred her own dream of a professional theater career to raise an ungrateful teenage son, but she hasn’t yet been “shown [her] place,” as Ariana puts it in one of the bitter moments that coalesce into a downpour of despair in the second half of this one-act. But will Margo throw away her shot? Not if Ariana has anything to say about it.
Hoffman’s intense performance and Smith’s sharply written script solidify the loud, brash, funny Ariana into a fully rounded human being. Her jokes, we see, are defenses, hiding all-too-recognizable woes that keep us rapt through her long nightly wait for her moment in the spotlight.
Like Hamlet – or Greek myth, or the Aeneid – Fiddler on the Roof and the stories of Sholem Aleichem on which it was based have provided fertile soil for creative extrapolation. Tevye, the pious but put-upon milkman confronted with unwanted cultural encroachments of the modern era, is the most archetypal character. (See my review of Tevye Served Raw, for example.) Now, with this production, Fruma-Sarah gets her due. And kudos to director Braden M Burns, who came up with the idea, and to Hoffman, Kinsella, and Smith. Despite the pathos, I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard since the pandemic started.