Meet Polly Draper, the breakout star of ‘Shiva Baby’

Polly Draper

BY DAN BUFFA, SPECIAL FOR THE JEWISH LIGHT

It took me 54 film/television credits and 36 years to discover the great talent that is Polly Draper, the scene-stealing mother from Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby.” The Jewish comedy/drama is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, so if you want a film that will make you laugh out loud and give you nightmares of your last chaotic Shiva, this is it. 

Playing Debbie, the excuse-formulating and quietly judging yet doting mother of our protagonist (Rachel Sennott’s Danielle), Draper’s quick wit carried an underlayer of dryness that only ratcheted the humor up a few notches. As Danielle and her father, Joel (Fred Melamed, a veteran Jewish actor) get out of the car, Debbie fixes her fair in the side mirror of the car. “What’s the sound bite today,” she asks her daughter, meaning what are they going to tell the noisy family members that need to know about the young woman’s life progress.

Shortly after, she condemns Joel’s inability to remember the reasons for things, such as the location of his cellphone and why they are driving his van. For normal people, the words would flow out smoothly and show some earnest care; with Debbie, it’s as if a sniper has the barrel pointed at you 24/7. In a span of five minutes, Draper’s matriarch is warning Danielle to stay away from her old girlfriend (Molly Gordon) and yelling at Joel. “He either can’t remember anything, or he has Alzheimer’s,” she tells her daughter about Melamed’s behind-the-eight-ball father.

All of this works due to Draper’s comic timing and snappy delivery. As the Shiva unfolds in the film and tensions run higher thanks to Danielle’s much-older boyfriend who supplies her money, aka a “sugar daddy, being in attendance, the audience gets to check in with Debbie as he eats food, dispels concerning rumors about her daughter, and tries to keep everything in line. But then, as “Shiva Baby” turns the corner and Seligman’s writing moves more to heartfelt drama, Draper’s mother loosens up and the actress gets to show another shade of her talent. 

It’s that talent that has stayed under the radar for quite some time. Draper’s career started in 1985 playing the co-lead’s mother, and has included small film roles such as: “Dinner Rush” with Danny Aiello, “Our Idiot Brother” with Paul Rudd, “Side Effects” with Rooney Mara, and “Demolition” with Jake Gyllenhaal. Playing a high-strung mother is nothing new to Draper. “Shiva Baby” was one of the first times, outside of a respected television career, including as a featured cast member on the Emmy-winning series “thirtysomething,” that her part carried some meat and juice to the table. Most actors spend their entire career waiting for a role like Debbie, one that only Draper could have invested so much love and care into the portrayal. 

The world of make believe and show business has surrounded the actress for most of her life. Draper, who was born in Chicago and married a famous Jewish pianist in Michael Wolff, has a B.A. from Yale University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale Drama School. She had two sons with Wolff, including the young up and coming talent, Nat. The things you find out from IMDB and Wikipedia can turn any actor or actress into a six degrees ordeal with connections to other movies, shows, and performers. Draper is no different. 

She has been in the movie game for 36 years, and made the time count. “Shiva Baby” just shined a light right on her instead of a movie star like Gyllenhaal or Rudd. And it’s fitting that the film represents her break-through as well as Seligman’s first feature directorial effort. If she makes another movie, giving a talent like Draper at least four at-bats in that feature will be a wise idea. If there’s one thing Hollywood portrays well, it’s the idea that a big role or moment can happen at any time. 

“Shiva Baby” was memorable for a few things-mastering the awkwardness of a funeral among them-but at the top of the list was Draper’s Debbie. Here’s a woman you’d invite to a big gathering just to see how much info she could pull and how many one-liners she could burn a room down with. A sequel wouldn’t be a bad idea; one that is actually needed.

Where else will I find a scene where Melamed’s good-intentioned dad relentlessly attempts to stuff ten people into a mid-sized van-including the sugar daddy, his wife and infant daughter, and Danielle-while his wife berates him the entire time?  Hysterical stuff, thanks to the actors and writing. While Draper isn’t Jewish in life, I am sure her Debbie could easily get lost in several future Jewish get-togethers without a problem. 

But “Shiva Baby” works so well and comes off as memorable as it does because of Draper. We need more of her, Hollywood. Please and thank you.