Reel Affirmations 2006
Review by Randy Shulman
Rating: (4 out of 5)
Saturday, 10/14/2006, 9:00 PM
Feature presentation, $9 at Goethe Institut Inter Nationes
DID YOU KNOW Charles Nelson Reilly was still alive? Don’t feel bad — I didn’t either. In fact, according to Reilly himself, most people think the actor is dead. ”They call the box office and ask who’s playing Reilly in the one-man show, Life of Reilly.” When told that it’s the actor himself, they respond, ”No, it can’t be, he’s dead.”
In Life of Reilly, a crisply filmed documentation of Reilly’s final performance before retiring his four-year touring production, the actor — best known as the man of sailor’s caps and ascots and witty bon mots on Match Game and the flustered and flamboyant Claymore Gregg on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir — is very much alive and in exceptional form, recounting his life’s story with a flair and flourish, panache and pathos, wit and wisdom.
”I shoulda thrown away the baby and kept the afterbirth,” he recalls his strong-willed mother growling at him, and the audience audibly gasps. Reilly just shrugs, earning a laugh with an off-the-cuff ”Well, it’s that kind of show.”
Directors Frank Anderson and Barry Polterman make the most of the staged setting, enhancing Reilly’s monologue with archival film footage. Even those who grew up with the unavoidable Reilly in the ’70s, and may have dismissed him as a one-trick pony, will be impressed by the Bronx-born actor’s armful of Tony nominations (for Hello, Dolly and directing The Gin Game) and his one big win (for How to Succeed in Business…), as well as his jaw-dropping roster of classmates in Uta Hagen’s famed acting class, a list that included Steve McQueen, Jack Lemmon, Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver.
Though Reilly addresses his homosexuality, he does so only tangentially. Applying for a job at NBC in the late ’50s, he’s told, ”They don’t let queers on television.” There is no mention of a longtime relationship or, for that matter, much relating to his personal life at all. Aside from some pretty brutal memories from his horrific homelife as a child, Life of Reilly ultimately disintegrates into a Hollywood memoir, an actor’s tell-all, revealing less and less as it goes on.
The schmaltzy surface-nature of the show, however, is redeemed by Reilly’s performance — so captivating, he could be reading the same entry from the phone book for 90 minutes and you wouldn’t mind — and by a final story in which Reilly comes upon a beach-bound pelican caught up in a fisherman’s netting. It’s a tale that stirs your heart and extinguishes any remaining memories of those silly blanks filled in by Reilly decades ago on daytime television. — RS