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THEATER REVIEW

Grab a latte and let Julia Sweeney confide

May 07, 2003|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

The phrase "as comfortable as old shoes" certainly applies to Julia Sweeney. That's not damning with faint praise, either. In fact, after all her years in "the business," it's remarkable that Sweeney has so completely avoided the endemic industry snare of artifice and self-importance.

That virtue is evident in "In the Family Way," Sweeney's one-woman show about her adoption of a Chinese girl. The show is now in its West Coast premiere at the Groundlings Theatre. Chatty, intimate and bitingly funny, Sweeney gives a performance of such genuineness, it is almost anti-theatrical. She could just as well be chatting with friends at a coffee bar. That's a delicate deception, however. Sweet yet salty, Sweeney may look as scrubbed and wholesome as the mom next door, but she has the comic timing of a Borscht Belt tummler.

Sweeney is probably most widely known for her androgynous character Pat, which she performed on "Saturday Night Live" and later in a famous flop of a film. A few years back, Sweeney scored critical acclaim with her one-woman show, "God Said, Ha!," which dealt with the loss of her brother to cancer and her own battle with the disease.

"Family" picks up where "Ha!" left off, with Sweeney emerging from a failed long-term relationship -- at age 38, a catastrophe that puts her hopes of having a family in doubt. For a time, she toys with the notion of having a child by a surrogate mother. But her visit to a high-priced fertility clinic, hilariously described, convinces her to adopt. After a brush with the domestic adoption process, Sweeney elects to adopt from another country, finally settling on China. Yet it's a far cry from the decision to the event to the aftermath -- the sometimes painful evolution of Sweeney and her new daughter from strangers to "family."

The story covers familiar ground, but Sweeney's take on it is rich with the unexpected. Director Mark Brokaw, who helmed the show for its New York run, has the good sense not to meddle with Sweeney's no-frills naturalism. Allen Moyer's simple scenic design consists of little more than a 1950s advertising poster picturing a perfect suburban family -- an appropriately ironic backdrop to the tale.

And if the narrative is not exactly groundbreaking, Sweeney's charm and humanism make it not only diverting but distinctive. Lewis Flinn's original music and an opening set by the musical trio the Hillbilly Hula Boys round out the entertainment.

*

'In the Family Way'

Where: Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., Hollywood

When: Mondays only, 8 p.m.

Ends: June 30

Price: $10

Contact: (323) 463-0204

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

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