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A CurtainUp Review
By Julia Furay
Glaser's performance is the first and foremost reason why this show works. As five members of a Jewish family, she manages to make each of her characters unique, with enough similarities to remind us that all these people are related. Physically, her characters couldn't carry themselves differently. This is apparent from the opening monologue, in which Glaser plays Mort, the world-weary patriarch of this Jewish clan and the show's only male. The heavyset, exhausted man absolutely slumps into his chair, and he trudges rather than walks across the stage as he bemoans his daughter's bisexuality. Contrast that with his mother Rose's fragile hesitancy, or the movements of his younger daughter Sandra, who flails herself onto the furniture with typical teenage abandon.
Sandra's older sister, Fern (who , much to her father's chagrin, has renamed herself Kahari) has the most physically demanding of the monologues, as she recreates the birth of her child. Glaser is incredibly intense in this segment, which is ultimately about her body as much as it is about her family. It's a primitively powerful scene.
The biggest emotional wallop belongs to Mort's wife and Sandra and Fern's mother, Bev. With her loud cackle and platinum blonde hairdo, she initially seems mostly a caricature of a Jewish mother so that we don't expect her story to become as moving as it does. She's a woman who wants to be a perfect mother, with perfect kids ("but they wouldn't cooperate"). She's terrific fun to watch because she punctuates her story with a great deal of that bawdy laughte. It's ger ability to laugh at herself and her weaknesses that make the account of her breakdown so powerful. After all these years, Glaser still knows how to wring every bit of laughter and pathos from this characterization.
It's left to teenager Sandra and grandma Rose to make up the second act. Even if they weren't solid monologues, Glaser would keep us entertained with her mimicry. Yet, these pieces aren't as emotionally or viscerally captivating as those in the first act. Sandra's story about drugs and rape feels a little out-of-tune with what has gone before. However, there are compensations: Sandra's lack of self-awareness stands in stark contrast to her mother's and ties things together nicely. Rose's December love story, on the other hand, is funnier than it is touching.
Glaser's writing ability should not be given short thrift. She is absolutely uncanny in her ability to give each character an honest, heartfelt voice. (The co-author, Greg Howell, was her husband at the time Family Secrets was first presented and has since disappeared and declared legally dead).
For a piece as personal and intimate as Family Secrets is, it comes as a bit of a surprise that it's staged in such a large and traditional manner. 37Arts, with its 399 seats, isn't a huge theater, but the stage is fairly large. Glaser and director Bob Balaban fill all of it with chair, bed and vanity desk. The show is blocked well, but something about it feels stretched. It's not that Glaser can't fill the stage, but that the large setting, and the full costume changes in between each segment feel almost unnecessary. It would be great to see Family Secrets in an even more stripped down and intimate production, thus allowing us to revel in Glaser's performance even more. But we'll take what we can get -- and what we've got is very good indeed.
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