As a play, Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna's "If You Ever Leave Me … I'm Going With You!" has the feeling of a home movie. In fact, it even includes some. This may have to do with the fact that Taylor and Bologna, who have been married 36 years, use their shared experiences as fodder for their plays and films ("Lovers and Other Strangers," "Made for Each Other" and "It Had to Be You"). As a result, it is hard to fix a border between what actually happened to them and the presumably goosed-up versions they create in their fiction. If the borders were clearer, they might have told the story of their lives and courtship as a counterpoint to the stories we already know. Perhaps because even they can no longer separate art and reality, what they offer, in large part, are scenes from their works. It is the equivalent of a songwriter sitting at the piano and playing a tune, after which he declares, "And then I wrote … " In this case, of course, it's, "And then we wrote…" After a brief introduction, the play begins with a scene in which the young Taylor, a highly neurotic actress, auditions for the young Bologna, then a director of commercials. A short while later, they explain that this was a vignette from "It Had to Be You," and that their actual meeting was a little more prosaic. They next examine their first date, a dinner she cooked using the time-tested techniques of Jewish cuisine: "My mother would take a piece of meat, put it in water, and when the pot and the meat was burnt - that's when she would serve it."
This, we learn, was from their first play, "Lovers and Other Strangers." A lot of the material is extremely funny, but after a while you wish more of it were authentic, like a long monologue Bologna does about his father. As for the home movies, the couple tells us that one of the reasons they have been successfully married for so long is that every few years they renew their marriage vows. Then they show us the films. Their wedding, in 1965, took place on the Merv Griffin Show, which was an ingenious way of getting their Italian and Jewish families to attend. (Some relatives might have boycotted the event had it taken place in a church or a synagogue.) Footage from the 1965 wedding is priceless; the subsequent vow-renewal ceremonies seem forced. In addition to writing and starring in the material, they also directed it. A fresher eye might have forced them to sharpen their delivery, which sometimes seems overdone. Taylor and Bologna are superb comics, but this assemblage of old material interlarded with old jokes does not show them at their best.
Presumably, it takes a lot of chutzpah to write your autobiography.
You have to have faith that your life and the people in it are worthy of public interest.
And you have to believe you are absolutely fascinating and have an enthralling story to tell.
No one can accuse Renée Taylor and Joe Bologna of a lack of chutzpah, and I'm sure that they felt no qualms in presenting the stage autobiography of their 36-year-old marriage in "If You Ever Leave Me . . . I'm Going With You."
Written, directed and performed by Taylor and Bologna, yet decked out with no less than eight producers, it opened last night at the Cort Theater.
Luckily, Taylor and Bologna are splendid comic actors and pretty shrewd writers. This is not highbrow stuff but high-grade vaudeville.
In telling the story of their marriage - from their 1965 wedding on "The Merv Griffin Show" to their five various renewals of vows - they interpolate scenes and sketches from their earlier plays.
Mention of Taylor's mother provokes a feeble excerpt from their feeblest play, "Bermuda Love Triangle," which leads into a funnier scene from "Lovers and Other Strangers," based on Bologna's father.
These samples from the past, interlaced with marital commentary, are easy on the mind, and the seedily debonair Bologna and the wistfully crumpled Taylor are remarkably endearing.
At one point Bologna says, "I know there are a lot of grandparents in the audience," and he must have looked. Hardly anyone at the matinee I attended was younger than Mick Jagger.
Yet for the right people with the right memories - of "The Merv Griffin Show," for starters - this could prove a perfectly amiable diversion between dinner and sleep. And you can't say that of everything on Broadway.
Do you by any chance make a habit of crashing wedding receptions, anniversary banquets and family reunions? Do you get your kicks from watching strangers in festive formal wear as they show home movies, make toasts of mutual admiration and swap anecdotes about quirky relatives that somehow all sound the same?
If so, you may very well enjoy the party that Renée Taylor and Joe Bologna have thrown for themselves at the Cort Theater under the title ''If You Ever Leave Me . . . I'm Going With You!'' The downside of course is that there are no free drinks or hors d'oeuvres. On the other hand, you will not be expected to make conversation. Your hosts have amply taken care of that side of things.
''If You Ever Leave Me,'' which opened last night, is a self-infatuated tribute to the 36-year marriage of Ms. Taylor and Mr. Bologna, who are the writers, directors and stars of the 90-minute show. The couple were originally married (they periodically renew their vows) on ''The Merv Griffin Show,'' and ever since their relationship has remained a public phenomenon, translated into a series of stage comedies and movies.
They were first seen together on Broadway in 1968 in ''Lovers and Other Strangers'' (the basis for the 1970 film) and appeared Off Broadway in ''Bermuda Avenue Triangle'' four years ago. Their work usually features characters much like themselves.
When they met, as Ms. Taylor says early on, they were ''a volatile Italian boy from Brooklyn and an oversensitive Jewish girl from the Bronx.'' They accordingly tend to portray discreetly neurotic Italian-American men (one of them is named Vito Pignoli) who are both exasperated and delighted by the madcap ways of flamboyantly neurotic Jewish women.
Since the autobiographical stories presented by the stars of ''If You Ever Leave Me'' have hardened into shtick-shaped molds, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the scenes from plays and the stand-up anecdotes. It is even more difficult to distinguish among the various plays excerpted here. There is for example the sketch about the fast-talking old fellow who puts the moves on the dithery old woman (''Bermuda Avenue Triangle''). Then there is the sketch about the fast-talking old fellow who puts the moves on the dithery old woman (''Bedrooms'').
Most of these scenes are shaped by a dynamic of violent argument fading into docile reconciliation, which Ms. Taylor and Mr. Bologna explain is also the pattern of their marriage and the secret of its success. The show's title, with its self-contained setup and punch line, pretty much says it all. At a certain point you begin to feel you've been trapped in a sealed-off library of family albums and scrapbooks, haunted by a ghostly laugh track.
Wearing an assortment of purple outfits that are somehow both stately and wacky, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Bologna execute their yin-yang clashes with an odd combination of eagerness and languor. Neil Simon might have created this pair, who bring to mind vaudevillians who have been doing the same routine all their lives but can't imagine giving it up.
For a glimpse of the couple in a more spontaneous-seeming mode, you can watch fragments from their films and (I swear) home videos, which show several of their marriage ceremonies. In the first one the ethnic divide is crossed by the stars' respective families in the interests of television harmony.
It, like a subsequent wedding sequence in which the sentimental Ms. Taylor's mascara disintegrates amid tears, is delightful. So is a clip from their ''Made for Each Other'' (1971), a self-conscious erotic encounter that makes you realize how refreshing their personas -- Nichols-and-May eccentricities by way of the Catskills -- must have seemed then.
Spontaneity is otherwise not much in evidence, and you may be surprised by how many of the jokes seem familiar, even some that are presented as part of their personal history. Heard the one about the 93-year-old man who can't urinate? Or the ancient couple who tell the judge why they've waited so long to get divorced? If not, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Bologna will be happy to fill you in.
For a working definition of chutzpah, check out the Cort Theater, where Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna are celebrating their long-lived marital union and career partnership in one of the more peculiar entertainments to stray onto a Broadway stage in recent years. This curious exercise in self-exposure -- or is it self-worship? -- has some funny bits of schtick in it, to be sure, but it's probably only going to appeal to members of the Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna fan club, an organization that may currently be in some disarray, as its apparent prexy and CEO are doing eight perfs a week at the Cort.
The show opens with a simultaneously amateurish and overblown video segment intro'ing the loving couple via various celebrities (Sid Caesar, Regis and Kathie Lee, "Nanny" star Fran Drescher) and family members (son Gabe holding grandson Giuliano). Their significance thus established, the stars, who also wrote and directed the show, then take the stage to offer reminiscences of their meeting, courtship and 36-year marriage, cast in the form of standup comedy.
Much of the humor centers on the clash of their ethnic backgrounds. He's Italian; she's Jewish. Oy gevalt meets mamma mia! Joe credits the marriage's longevity to belief in "a higher ideal, a shared spiritual purpose that's greater than the marriage ... pasta!" Counters Renee: "We have pasta at least three times a week. Even when I have a headache."
The fusion of Borscht Belt humor with Italian-style histrionics is their signature dish, and not a bad one, certainly. It's served up via excerpts from their prior stage and film collaborations that are mixed in with the personal material.
Some of the staged vignettes, which Taylor and Bologna enact with the help of basic, blue spray-paint-drenched scenery supplied by Kenneth Foy and costumes by Alvin Colt, are quite funny in a lower-brow Nichols and May way.
A bit from their play and movie "Lovers and Other Strangers" about a nervous soon-to-be-groom and his silently implacable fiancee has a good punchline.
Another cute scene from the same source depicts a pair of concerned parents trying to coax their unhappy son into remaining married. "Don't go looking for happiness, Richie," implores Mama. "It'll make you miserable."
Other segments, alas, are worn and tasteless, notably an overlong skit about an elderly couple negotiating a potential trip to the bedroom.
Taylor, probably best known to general audiences as the mother in "The Nanny," is a sharp comedienne who clearly knows her way around a joke. She uses her put-upon nasal whine and wry, lopsided smile to smart and varied effect. Bologna is not as natural a comic talent, but he works hard and is an able straight man as needed.
Housed in a Miami Beach nightclub, this act would be right at home. But its somewhat musty humor and rambling, informal air seem a bit puny on a Broadway stage. And when Joe and Renee bring out the video from their weddings -- the plural is not a typo, I'm afraid -- audiences may get that claustrophobic feeling that comes when dinner hosts assault you with photo albums at the end of a long evening.
Then again, these are not your average wedding videos. Joe and Renee's first nuptial celebration took place on "The Merv Griffin Show," after all. And how many home videos have you seen that feature carefully timed reaction shots?