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Noshing on some juicy Jewish 'Secrets'

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March 14, 2006

There's plenty of heartbreak and trauma in the lives of the semifictionalized family she portrays, but the secrets of writer-performer Sherry Glaser's title "Family Secrets" aren't primarily dirty laundry. Instead, in this revival of her vivid, vigorous multicharacter portrait of the Fishers, a Jewish-American clan with outposts in Long Island and West Los Angeles, Glaser gets at a deeper, more universal puzzle - the mysterious force that binds people together, try as they might to tear themselves apart.

Glaser wisely eases into her inquiry by starting with the show's coolest customer, the patriarch Mort. A weary accountant in a three-piece suit and a wavy toupee, he provides both his family's rock of stability and its most distant emotional point. As realized by Glaser, Mort lolls at a quizzical angle in his armchair, or gets up to move about with a deliberate calm.

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This lightly perturbed equanimity, as he mulls the grief his lesbian daughter has caused him, give both his jokes and his bitterness a sneaky sting.

"My daughter's a pagan witch," he reports dryly. "Great. So when her car breaks down, she has her broomsticks."

Behind a simple makeup table, Glaser transforms into Mort's wife, Bev, who seems about a head taller than Mort in her blonde wig and garish red scarf. Her approach to life's major and minor torments is to look them in the eye and give them a mad cackle. Whether recalling shock treatments or reliving an encounter with her dead mother's ashes, Bev's unflappable zest borders on the frightening.

We're barely through imagining this mismatched couple in the same room before we meet their daughter, Fern, whose Wiccan name is Kahari. Though this character is closest to the author herself, Glaser doesn't spare this blowzy hippie the same bemused, unstinting gaze she applies to her parents. If anything, she fairly wallows in Fern/Kahari's pain and humiliation, acting out a natural childbirth that's as hilarious as it is harrowing.

By intermission, Glaser has proven herself an Olympic athlete, solo show division. How can she possibly top the wonderfully cracked triptych of the first act? Well, she doesn't.

In the show's second half, she presents the oldest and youngest of the Fishers - troubled teen Sandra and golden-girl granny Rose. This isn't so much a disappointment as it is more of the same - expertly observed, lovingly shaped, stunningly acted character studies. If they don't quite build on the household portrait set up so beautifully by the tightly knit first act, they do leave us with a comforting sense of continuum, from the miseries Sandra has ahead of her to the contented peace Rose has reached at the end of life's tumult.

The influence of director Bob Balaban - an actor best known for his film roles in "Capote," "A Mighty Wind" and "Gosford Park" - can be seen in the circumspection and clarity of Glaser's transitions, both within each narrative and in the matter-of-factly magical moments in which she shifts her focus and changes clothes, hair and makeup.

Glaser is among the few true masters of the multicharacter solo-show genre because she knows its secret: It's less about impressions than self-expression.

As Rose says of her progeny, "There's a little schmutz of me in all of them."

FAMILY SECRETS. Written by Sherry Glaser and Greg Howells. Revival, directed by Bob Balaban. 37 Arts Theatre, 450 W. 37th St., Manhattan. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, 5:30 p.m. Call 212-307-4100. Seen Friday.

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