NEW YORK — Poor Mort Fisher. This weary Jewish accountant is sur rounded by exasperating women. His octogenarian mother, Rose, tried to kill herself by sticking her head in the oven. His manic-depressive wife, Bev, who had a nervous breakdown over a failed lasagna, now holds on to reality with the help of lithium. His teen-age daughter, Sandra, is bulimic and a whiner. Her older sister, Fern, has renounced Judaism as oppressively patriarchal and changed her name to Kahari. More embarrassingly, he reveals during his opening monologue, she showed up with a lesbian lover at his 25th-wedding anniversary celebration.
These are the middle-class family members who inhabit Sherry Glaser's one-person comedy, "Family Secrets," returning to Southern California on Thursday after a hit run in New York. Over the course of 100 minutes, performed without intermission on a minimal set, Glaser effortlessly metamorphoses into each of these quirky characters in front of our eyes, using only her voice and body and simple costume changes.
Rose, for one, sends audiences out of their chairs in hysterics. Wearing a shapeless, homely house dress and singing "Hava Nagila," Rose exhorts everyone to sing along. And most do. "Do you know what a Nagila is?" she asks in a thick "New Yawk Jewish" accent, interrupting the song. "I'll tell you. A long time ago in Israel when the woman of the house would have guests over, she'd greet them at the door with a plate of flaky pastry called . . . nagila." For those non-Jews in the audience who aren't already in tears from laughing uncontrollably, Rose waits a beat, then continues: "She'd say, 'Hello, have a nagila.' "
Glaser, who was raised in New York and now lives in Northern California, has found a way to exorcise the pain and confusion of her upbringing--like countless other Jewish comics before her--through self-deprecating humor. "Family Secrets" is a very personal play about Glaser's struggle to live with and love and understand herself. Much of the material is autobiographical--all of the characters, in fact, are essentially telling Glaser's life story, with the exception of the mother--and performing it, Glaser says, is therapeutic. But audiences don't necessarily see that. Instead, they witness a play that celebrates the nuttiness inherent in every family.
Although some New York critics had reservations about the material's Borscht Belt-like conventions, Glaser's acting was universally acclaimed. New York Times critic David Richards, writing in the year-end issue of the Arts and Leisure section, singled out Glaser's performance as one of the six best of 1993. Howard Kissel, raving in the Daily News, rhetorically wondered why "there wasn't a ticker-tape parade to welcome her home."
Following its New York opening on Oct. 6, 1993, middle-aged, Jewish audiences poured in. "Family Secrets" ran Off Broadway at the Westside Arts Theater for 15 months. It could have probably run longer, but, as was contractually agreed from the start, Glaser is taking it on the road instead. The tour begins in Palm Desert, where Glaser will give four performances at the McCallum Theatre, before settling in for a five-week run beginning Feb. 7 at Los Angeles' 863-seat Henry Fonda Theater, which is reopening after being renovated for earthquake damage.
One would think the 33-year-old Glaser would be as funny offstage as she is on. She probably can be, just not on this late December day nine days before the end of her New York stint. The physical demands of "Family Secrets" have left her exhausted. The absence of her husband, Greg Howells, who co-wrote and directed the show, and their 7-year-old daughter, Dana, makes her lonely--both moved back to Mendocino three months before she closed here. Meanwhile, ongoing marketing and contractual arguments with her producers--David Stone, Amy Nederlander-Case and Irene Pinn, who also happens to be Glaser's manager--have made her crabby. On top of everything else, the noise from garbage trucks outside her midtown Manhattan apartment, which invariably collect rubbish at 4 a.m., is driving her crazy. So is the thought of going on a 20-week tour.
Over lunch, Glaser kvetches indiscreetly. "Everyone said the risk of taking a one-woman show to New York was huge," she says. "My producers made it sound like I would be lucky if I ran three or four months.
"So when we originally negotiated the contract," she continues, "it was with that kind of attitude. I didn't get exactly what I think I should have. They wouldn't give me a contract without my agreeing to the tour, before I even came to New York. Even when I had established myself here, I had to fight for little things. When I got sick and had to take a day off, for instance, I had to prove that I was sick." Like a note from her doctor? "Basically."