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Family Secrets

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Have you ever been trapped in a family reunion that simply would not end? You know the kind: Fathers being painfully clever, daughters sulking, mothers involuntarily laughing at their own jokes, grandmothers complaining, and so on. Well, I've recently been to just such a gathering. In an Off-Broadway theater, of all places. But the family wasn't mine.

No, it was all the work of Sherry Glaser, who's reappearing in Family Secrets, the one-woman show she wrote with Greg Howells and premiered in New York in 1993. Perhaps, back then, the material, or at least Glaser's take on it, was fresh enough to allow the evening to play like a blithely bitchy tribute to the people in our lives we love to hate and hate to love. Today, it's just excruciating.

Having missed Family Secrets the first time around, I can't definitively say whether the show itself has loosened, whether its current home at the relatively cavernous 37 Arts has diffused its gentle charms, or whether the passage of 13 years - which has seen the theatre's skyrocketing reliance on one-person shows - has just made the show dangerously creaky. But one suspects that the surface-level characterizations Glaser now employs wouldn't have necessitated this revival had they been in place 13 years ago.

Variety isn't Glaser's problem. She has little trouble differentiating her characters, who - despite all being part of the Jewish, California-transplanted Fisher clan - run the predicted gamut: a business- and closed-minded father; his manic-depressive wife; two daughters, one of whom is experiencing childbirth for the first time, and a second with a lust for alcohol, drugs, and boys; and the rickety grandmother whose mind remains firmly on love, marriage, and sex (perhaps not in that order).

Glaser cycles through the roster of characters in a series of monologues, telling their relevant stories and milking their relevant laughs as shamelessly as she can. Which, it must be mentioned, is pretty shamelessly: Whether injecting nasal guffaws after every other line the mother speaks, or rehashing every cliché about natural childbirth for daughter Fern (in the show's most - please forgive me - labored segment), Glaser knows how to wrench guffaws from onlookers as if with forceps.

But neither Glaser nor director Bob Balaban has employed the one tactic that might make that laughter ring true rather than hollow: restraint. Balaban lets Glaser run roughshod over the stage and audience, working in volatile caricature for vast, unbearable minutes without ever precisely defining in word or action the quirky individuals who constitute this family, or any family.

Whether they're based on Glaser's own relatives, I won't hazard a guess, but they're all dusty reflections of her as an actress, never consuming her even when she adopts full costumes or wigs. They all share an irritatingly similar voice (breathy to the point of asthmatic), and, despite a few cosmetic differences, lumber about the stage like a flailing stand-up comedian who's lost control of his audience.

Glaser and Balaban have also not sufficiently stressed the show's mid-1980s setting, crucial for establishing the economic and social undercurrents that silently drive the story (particularly father Mort's unfamiliarity-driven discomfort with his daughter's potential homosexuality). Glaser, however, never transports us there - she remains resolutely on the stage of 37 Arts in 2006, leaving us squarely in the audience trying to laugh our way over the consistency gaps.

Ideally, Family Secrets would flourish in any year; the, ahem, timeless comedy of the Catskills, from which most of this show is unapologetically drawn, never loses its unique luster. Admittedly, most of the comics who practice it wouldn't concern themselves with evoking a certain place or time, or this many interconnected characters. They, however, aren't headlining Off-Broadway shows. Glaser can't decide whether this material should be that kind of comedy act or a play - she's not currently able to make it both.


Family Secrets
Through April 16
Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
37 Arts, 450 West 37th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster