The uncommon life and times of Annie Korzen
Coral-rimmed glasses that match her hair dangle around Annie Korzen’s neck. The spry 78-year-old actress plays a piano situated offstage left inside the cozy Braid Theatre in Santa Monica.
Perhaps best known for a small, recurring role on “Seinfeld” as obnoxious Florida retiree Doris Klompus, she steps out from behind the keys and onto a sparsely decorated stage against a bare, white wall while rehearsing a monologue.
A brief conversation ensues over a cue with her handpicked director, Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) veteran Susan Morgenstern. Korzen waltzes downstage.
“I hate it when you’re right,” Korzen says, contorting her malleable face into a droopy shape. Morgenstern and other crew laugh. This is the woman whom producers of hit shows like “Jane the Virgin,” “New Girl” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” call when they need someone who can get a laugh off one line — and she’s the first to remind you.
The discussion and laughter end, Korzen takes the direction and continues rehearsing.
As evidenced by her new one-woman show, getting laughs comes easily but relinquishing control and accepting change is harder. “Annie Korzen Famous Actress,” written and performed by Korzen, is an equally funny and moving exploration of her life onstage, on camera and off.
The show is being produced by JWT, a nonprofit, independent theater company created in 2007 to provide Jewish women a voice onstage.
In the play, Korzen juxtaposes her status as a bit player in films and television with being a diva-like, leading lady in her son’s life. She channels an opinionated, exasperated, yet appealing alter ego that sometimes raises the question: Who’s the real Annie Korzen?
“I have, like most performers, created an onstage character,” she said. “I always say that I’m much more likable onstage than I am in real life, even though my onstage character is quite sardonic and opinionated. But she does it with a charm that I don’t have in my personal life. So onstage Annie is really fun to be with. Real-life Annie, not so much all the time.”
Partly as a result of the success of Monica Piper’s 2014 autobiographical one-woman show at JWT, “Not That Jewish,” which went on to enjoy an off-Broadway run, the company commissioned Korzen to develop her own show.
Korzen mentioned Piper’s show and several other solo stage plays as references, then paused, mulled it over and concluded:
“Nope. Never mind. I’m better than all of them.”
Korzen has written and performed pieces for JWT for the past five years. She has been working on her latest show for nearly two years.
“I find great bliss in speaking my own words,” she said after a recent rehearsal. “Just as a creative person, I think I have something to say. I think people enjoy hearing me say it. And I don’t know anything that’s more fun.”
That comfort level is on full display in “Famous Actress” as Korzen reopens painful wounds of the past onstage, including long-simmering issues with a controlling mother and doubts about her own failings as a parent — but all with a punch line right around the corner.
The jokes are nuanced and complex. Talk of Korzen’s helicopter parenting over her son well into adulthood goes beyond a Jewish mother stereotype, leaning on the pathos of a woman learning to cede control and learn from mistakes. Korzen lambastes her own mother onstage for making her grow up behind a piano while taking endless lessons, then wordlessly thanks her by performing a show that wouldn’t pack the same punch without its piano-playing star.
“I guess it’s a way of wanting to feel loved, I don’t know,” she said, almost dismissively, about opening up onstage. “There’s a great showbiz saying that comedy is turning your pain into money. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do.”
In “Famous Actress,” Korzen, a Bronx native, recalls taking up acting with grandiose ideas of becoming the type of marquee star she saw as a kid lighting up Broadway stages — usually on Yom Kippur, she said, because “it’s the easiest day of the year to get theater tickets.”
Her acting career didn’t pan out quite that way, but a prominent theme in her show is being at peace with how things turn out.
“It’s OK to change your script. That’s the real point of the piece,” she said. “You can be different. People think they know what they want in life and if they don’t get that, they feel frustrated, angry and bitter. What I’m trying to say is, yes, of course we have our dreams and our fantasies, but at the same time we have to be open to what comes our way.”
Korzen’s turn on “Seinfeld,” which she credits with opening many doors, came only because a more established actress turned down the part, saying it was too small.
“Always say yes,” she said. “That’s definitely another theme of the show.”
An art exhibit, which includes a painting from Korzen’s film producer husband Bennie Korzen, will accompany the show.
“Annie Korzen Famous Actress” starts previews July 8 and opens July 12 for a six-week run. Tickets can be purchased on JWT’s website at http://www.jewishwomenstheatre.org/up-next/performances/.