- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

“Everybody was screaming, screaming. Then we had cake.”

That line pretty much sums up the tangle of love and neurosis that makes up most families, especially the five members of a Jewish clan tenderly depicted by Sherry Glaser in “Family Secrets,” a one-woman show at Theater J filled with hilarious and heart-catching moments.

Miss Glaser co-wrote “Family Secrets” with her late husband Greg Howells in 1993, and it became Off-Broadway’s longest running one-woman show. She recently reprised the production with Bob Balaban as director, and despite a smattering of anachronisms — wouldn’t Sandra, the teenager, have a ubiquitous cell phone? — the evening of self-expression is timeless and insightful.

Employing a battery of quick costume changes, wigs and glasses, Miss Glaser transforms herself in front of your eyes into a Buddha-bellied accountant, a housewife who survived a nervous breakdown when she mistook her son for Jesus, a frantically angry teen, a New Age daughter, and a grandma savoring a really late-in-life marriage.

Although the characters are markedly different — Miss Glaser appears to grow taller and more slender as Bev, the housewife, and crabs her body into the crouched position of an elderly woman with osteoporosis to play Grandmother Rose — they all share a New York nasal whine, a taste for rebelliousness, and a sense of humor as dry as yesterday’s matzo.

On the surface, “Family Secrets” appears to be a loving tribute to a family splintered by disappointments and compromises, but sticking together no matter what. You laugh at the middle-aged accountant Mort kvetching about his daughter Fern’s female lover Molly (“I met Molly. She’s a nice girl — for my son Joel.”), until you realize his decision to distance himself from his child results in an aching loneliness and restless conscience.

In perhaps the evening’s most poignant piece, his wife Bev recounts her nervous breakdown — which, she says, was perfect timing because her husband had “Major Medical.” Her machine-gun laugh and skittish posture suggest a woman uncomfortable with herself, but as Bev glibly rattles on about madness and shock treatments, making little jokes along the way, you begin to see her as someone for whom peace of mind is a constant, heroic struggle.

Bev and Mort’s bellicose and needy daughter Sandra is not the evening’s most successful venture. Although the portrayal of a teenager’s apparently bottomless self-absorption is quite funny — her cross to bear is emptying the dishwasher — Sandra seems to be flirting with bulimia, drug use and being an easy mark for sexual predators.

Grandmother Rose seems at first to be equally problematic — a sweet little old lady stereotypically talking about flatulence, aching bones and other maladies. But Miss Glaser’s powers of observation are so keen that Rose becomes something unexpectedly romantic and hopeful, especially when confessing the particulars of meeting and marrying Milton, whose gallant response when Rose has a bladder incident in a restaurant is worthy of modern knighthood. It is Rose who delivers the show’s overarching message: that love and family are all that matters, no matter how miserable and inconvenient they may seem at times.

Rose’s spirit is infectious enough that when she encourages the audience to join her in “Hava Nagila” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” even the most reluctant shiksa theatergoers join in. For a moment, we’re not strangers. We’re family.

***1/2

WHAT: “Family Secrets,” written by Sherry Glaser and Greg Howells

WHERE: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m., Saturdays; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Sundays. Through April 15.

TICKETS: $15 to $45

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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