Family Bladders

My husband, a research scientist and well-educated man, has a mental block when it comes to the arts. Using the logic and empirical knowledge that serves him so well in the laboratory, he wonders aloud at the end of a cinematic or theatrical disaster - as an impressive list of credits is unveiled - how these talented, celebrated people could make such an obvious piece of junk and not realize it. I try to convince him that if there existed some universal formula, the world might need just one writer, one set of actors, and one director who knew The Truth and never failed. Privately though, I sometimes see his point. How can people once touched by brilliance climb into bed with fakers?

Take, for example, the case of Irene Pinn and Art Wolff. Pinn represented and produced Lily Tomlin, an actress responsible for one of the most ingenious one-performer shows in theater history - The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Pinn also worked with Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney of The Kathy and Mo Show, an innovative comic hit both off-Broadway and on HBO. Having directed Tracey Ullman, Penn & Teller, Elaine May, Richard Dreyfuss, and Ron Silver, Art Wolff enjoyed a life imbued with greatness.

Yet Irene Pinn directed, and Art Wolff as original director guided, an evening rife with boredom, tastelessness, and boundless cliches in the form of Family Secrets, the production now occupying the Encore Room at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Written by Sherry Glaser with husband Greg Howells, and performed by Glaser, this one-person show is a series of long monologues rather than a dramatic play, something akin to the work of Laurie Anderson or Spaulding Gray - except that it says nothing about anything. It contains five monologues, delivered by the members of a family supposedly based on Glaser's own. I should also mention that the piece won a few awards in Los Angeles, where it premiered, which may explain why Los Angelenos now trek to Miami for excitement.

Secrets opens with a predictable moanfest by Mort, the father, lamenting his ungrateful children. The audience is instantly treated to sitcom punch lines interspersed with "shocking" facts: his good Jewish daughter, an ex-lesbian, has conceived a child by a man named Miquel; his son herds sheep in Israel, thereby wasting a $67,000 education. Throughout the piece, Glaser and Howells attempt to ignite bland material using scatological and/or gynecological humor. If jokes about bladder control in the elderly and cervical dilations appeal to you, then rush right over. As for me, the items were shocking only for their total lack of impact.

After Mort finishes his shtick, the rest of the stock characters take a turn in linear fashion. There's the mother, Beverly, who strives so desperately for perfection she goes mad, the eldest daughter Fern (Miquel's main squeeze), who undergoes one of the phoniest childbirths ever portrayed on-stage, the other daughter, Sandra, a stupid punk, and finally Rose, the sweet Jewish grandmother who swells with pride for her family and even - gasp! - falls in love at the age of 80.

In more capable hands, these themes provide more than enough fodder for success, but what Glaser's and Howells's work owns in common with playwriting stumps me. Lengthy monologues need action and significance to light up a stage, and their range should be consistently broad and surprising, with revelations that are unique but achingly universal. Instead, this duo offers only pat situations, forced emotions, and contrived humor.

And Glaser herself tends to indicate rather than act, meaning that she depicts an emotion or condition instead of honestly connecting with it and experiencing it. As Mort, she stumbles hard and heavy around the stage - don't most men move that way? As the daughter giving birth, she slumps her back and pushes her pelvis forward in the tradition of inexperienced acting students. To portray Jewish characters, she adopts an insulting and irritating nasal whine.

The fact that she transforms into several characters in front of the audience may impress some, but I'd prefer that she choose one and flesh it out convincingly. Even better, include all five, but give them heartfelt connections and significant shared experiences like a real family, not one that's been concocted for regularly scheduled laughs.

Then again, I prefer plays with premise and plot - and with some intent other than: "Here are some folks I know. Aren't they unusual and interesting?"

The answer, quite frankly, is no.

Written by Sherry Glaser and Greg Howells, directed by Irene Pinn, original direction by Art Wolff; with Sherry Glaser. At the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove, through May 24. Performances Tuesday - Saturday at 8:30 p.m., matinees Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 2:15 p.m. Tickets cost $24 - $27. Call 442-4000 for more information.


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