nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
March 4, 2006
Sherry Glaser is a terrifically likable comedienne—in her one-woman series of monologues called Family Secrets, she inhabits five members of a Jewish family from the Bronx who make new lives for themselves in that land of happiness and “I’m ok/you’re ok” inner peace, Southern California. They are quite funny, and they tell good stories in their respective monologues. They love to talk using their hands. If you are suspecting that much of this plays into sentimental Jewish stereotypes, you’re no shmegegi, but don’t get schmart. Glaser is fairly nimble with the monologues, and if they err on the side of sentimentality, they do so with a heartfelt and unapologetic lack of pretension. Each monologue begins with a song and ends with a lesson learned, but in between these characters sometimes reveal arresting, complicated lives and tenacious inner struggle.
Mort, the father, has a touch-and-go relationship with his pagan, bisexual daughter, Kahari (a name she chose in adulthood, shirking her birth name, Fern), and shares with us the embarrassment he felt when she danced with her lesbian lover in front of all the guests at his renewal-of-marriage-vows reception.
Bev, his wife, has the bravest and most affecting time with us. She was abandoned by her mother, a woman who went into an asylum and never came out. This made Bev resolve to be the perfect mother to her own family, and as a result of that pursuit, she was also institutionalized. She takes us on a journey of mental recovery and as she tells of many a dish getting broken, an urn getting sent Federal Express, and her life being saved by a therapist named “Bunny,” she does it all with candid, charming humor.
Glaser’s bottomless sympathy for the mother and father gives the personal details of their stories a uniqueness that transcends stereotype and wraps us up in fulfilling time spent with real people. When Bev describes the surprising sand-like texture of her mother’s ashes, or when Mort specifies his dance-floor homophobia in the barely audible mutter, “Not in my house. Not in my house”, it is confession. We feel alone with them in the room, bonded with an unflinching trust—a result of Glaser’s skillful one-person showmanship in these moments.
The disconnect that exists between us and Sandra, then, feels all the more jarring. Sandra is Kahari’s teenage daughter, and her life is a laundry list of after-school special traumas: bulimia, binge eating, drinking, unprotected sex, poor body image, and a belief that a boyfriend could solve all her problems. We see her find out that the boy who took her virginity and told her she “was the best” has cheated on her. We see her drag out her secret stash of junk food and begin eating herself into numbness. We even see her jiggle the parts of her body at us that shame her the most.
But none of this seems remotely to affect her. Glaser’s grasp on this character is the weakest of her five personas, and it feels more clichéd than anything in the show touching on Jewish culture. The truly vulnerable details that are buried under the mountain of this girl’s pain are never brought to light. She doesn’t tell or show us anything that makes her a three-dimensional individual, as opposed to a composite of adolescent angst. What does she feel before, during, and after throwing up? What does she feel when she binges on chips and candy that she hides under her bed? What does she feel about sex now that she’s had it with a guy who clearly doesn’t care for her? The answers to these questions might not keep a comedy afloat, but there is nothing funny about these issues, even on the surface. To present a character that is up to her armpits in them requires a “fish or cut bait” commitment from the actor to go the root of the problems. The candor bar is set too high by the characters preceding Sandra for Glaser to allow her problems to feel arbitrarily plucked from a grab-bag of adolescent troubles.
Family Secrets is a revival of the off-Broadway production Glaser performed in 1993. Bob Balaban is the director at the helm this time, and with a keen eye he has overseen the show’s excellent pace and use of Rob Odorisio’s simple but handsome blue-toned set. Glaser’s characterizations do not reach for the artistic mimicry that differentiate characters in the one-woman shows of Anna Deveare Smith or Sarah Jones; she relies heavily on wigs, fat suits, and multiple costume elements, but the costume change transitions are smoothly accompanied by her singing a song in the manner of the upcoming character.
The audience on the night I saw the show was putty in her hands. She had them remembering most of the words to “Hava Nagilah” (“Aren’t you Jews?” she chided) and belting out every blessed word of “Sunrise, Sunset” (“You are Jews!” she beamed). Glaser offers very warm-hearted reflections on the idiosyncrasies of familial relations—which for many people are not so warm-hearted. These characters are humorous and wise about their tight-knit, imperfect bonds, but it can’t be forgotten, even in a laugh and song-filled evening, that they are also very lucky, and very blessed.