Think of Lucille Ball and you think of predicaments -- Lucy stomping grapes, Lucy trying to keep up with the conveyor belt, Lucy having a baby. Although the line between male and female has blurred since Lucy's time, actress and writer Sherry Glaser says feminine humor is still about situations, not jokes, as Lucy surely knew: "A woman telling a story about her day with her children makes me pee in my pants. It's so deeply funny to me how we get by."
She should know. "Yesterday," she says, "my little 2-year-old (Lucy) wanted some melon, and so I get the melon, and she says, 'NOT THAT MELON!' She's screaming, and I've got this giant knife in my hand, and the sound of Psycho is going through my head, and I'm like, 'Put the knife down.'"
In 1989, Glaser took the predicaments of her own upbringing and recycled them into Family Secrets, which she'll perform at the Center of Contemporary Arts this weekend. In 1990, the show won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and went on to run in New York for 15 months, becoming the longest running one-person show off-Broadway, a record that still stands. In Family Secrets, Glaser single-handedly portrays five members of a Jewish family, originally from New York, now in Southern California. The characters range from Mort, a long-suffering accountant, to Rose, an incontinent grandmother who discovers the redemptive powers of love and racquetball. Glaser never ridicules her characters or their plights -- she has too much compassion to take that easy way out. She celebrates their humanity instead.
Glaser starts the first of her five monologues in drag as Mort. Sixtyish and weary, Mort is talking on the phone to his daughter Fern. She has changed her name to Kahari ("It means 'jungle flower,' Dad") and decided to break up with her lover, Molly, in favor of Miguel, a spiritualist channeler by whom she is pregnant. Mort describes his shame when Fern and Molly danced together at the 25th-anniversary celebration of his marriage to Bev.
Still onstage, Glaser exchanges Mort's suit for a blouse and scarf. She alters her posture and voice, the thrust of her chin. As Bev, she explains that she waited to have a nervous breakdown until Mort's major medical could cover it. Her nasal laugh communicates the layers of depression and humor that underpin her days like sedimentary rock. Next comes Fern, the earth-sister whose idea of womanhood is to menstruate freely in a hut, and her younger sister, Sandra, a heavy-metal teenager who blames her parents for her bleak adolescence and vacuuming for her large breasts.
The material has the potential to melt into stereotype and treacle. But keenly observed details, such as Mort's enthusiastic nose-picking and Sandra's less-than-romantic loss of virginity, save the characters from caricature.
Perhaps that's because the piece is largely autobiographical. Both Glaser's mother and grandmother suffered from manic-depression and nervous breakdowns, her mother's occurring when Glaser was 4. Like Fern/Kahari, Glaser was involved in a lesbian relationship for six years before meeting her husband in 1985. A former bulimic, Glaser makes Sandra her younger self, on the road to drugs, bars and secretarial school.
And grief has deepened Mort's character since the death of Glaser's father two years ago. With makeup and a fake mustache, Glaser says, she looks exactly like him: "Having to become him has been incredibly joyful and painful more than ever, seeing him in the mirror and not being able to see him anymore. I miss him terribly. So it's my chance to be with him, in a strange way." Glaser has also incorporated his death into a new show, Oh My Goddess, in which she plays two characters: Miguel, a Latino waiter/channeler whose father has recently died, and Ma, The Great Jewish Mother of Us All, who has returned to save the earth from its disarray.
But there are some familial predicaments that even Glaser can't explore, at least not yet -- such as what she believes is the voluntary disappearance of her husband and director, Greg Howells, a year-and-a-half ago. "He left all his stuff on the 13th hole, and his clubs, and the car in the parking lot, and he was never seen again," Glaser says. "It's made me have to take on a lot more of the weight of my life, and so the weight of the characters, too."
Despite the pain of the situation, Glaser jokes about how she has removed Howells' name as co-writer of Goddess, because she has changed the piece since his disappearance. "My manager said, 'What if he sees it?' and I said, 'Well, let him come on over and complain to me.' Look, I'm going to bait him, you know. Let him speak up."
Like countless Jewish (and other) performers before her, she exorcises the confusion of her personal growth through self-deprecating humor. Writing her family's stories offered catharsis, she says: "It was the act of defining them and putting them in context and giving them into characters -- that's what healed me and helped my life."
Born in the Bronx and brought up in Queens and Long Island, Glaser was raised on a comedic diet of Dick Van Dyke, Broadway and The 2,000 Year Old Man, she says. "We were theatrically focused, and comedy was best." Although she saw such performers as Buddy Hackett and Jackie Mason perform in the Catskills, Lucille Ball had a greater impact on her sense of humor.
Glaser left New York at 18 to attend San Diego State University, where she learned improvisation. In her junior year, she dropped out of school to take her characters to the streets. She co-founded Hot Flashes, a feminist comedy group, and then joined the Egomaniaks, a New Age comedy troupe. Howells encouraged her to go solo.
At the time, her characters included her mother and father, a Southern belle who doesn't understand pregnancy, and a Japanese househusband. After seeing her show, a director from Los Angeles told her she was talented but needed a through-line, Glaser remembers: "I said, 'OK, OK. Well, family, that will work.' And I kind of transposed everything into family. And that was a very good bracket for it."
Whereas many current one-person shows, such as John Leguizamo's Freak, feature bleak and painful humor, Glaser prides herself on making people laugh from an innocent place, with a giggle, not a poke. But that doesn't mean she belittles the predicaments that are the basis of her humor.
"Yeah, (Mort) is frustrated; he doesn't understand these women that he lives with, but he loves them, and he's touched by them. He doesn't hate them and ridicule them. And the rejection of his daughter in her lesbian phase is his own fear. I'm trying to shed light on who this character is, not keep him in the dark. My work is about healing that stuff, not just pointing a finger and saying, 'Isn't he an ass?' He's a human being."
Glaser cried when she played her father for the first time, when she was 21, because she understood how difficult she had been as a daughter. "I went, 'Oh, how hard I am.' I was always in his face, going, 'What's the matter, Dad, can't you feel anything?' God, how annoying. I finally had some compassion."
Sherry Glaser's Family Secrets opens the 1999 Women CenterStage Series at the Center of Contemporary Arts at 8 p.m. Feb. 5-6 and 2 p.m. Feb. 7. Women CenterStage is a collaboration between COCA and That Uppity Theatre Company, produced in partnership with Wise Woman Productions and Women's Support and Community Services. For information, call COCA at 725-6555.