Former “Saturday Night Live” regular Julia Sweeney steps out of her androgynous “It’s Pat” persona with “God Said, ‘Ha!'”– yet another entry in the comic-does-autobiographical-monologue sweepstakes. Quite an engaging one, too — though more attention should be paid to developing emotional depth and narrative structure before this show is ready for primetime elsewhere.
Sweeney opens with some awkwardly blackout-separated anecdotes that, while funny, provide a rather loose introduction to her non-Pat, real-life persona and family background. Then she settles into recent history. Cut loose from “SNL” (the disastrous “It’s Pat” movie is barely noted), as well as from an amicably defunct marriage, Sweeney exults in newfound freedom. Her idyll, however, lasts just three months.
At that point, younger brother Mike moves in — diagnosed with late-stage lymphatic cancer. Then the parents descend from Spokane to help out. Suddenly Sweeney’s cherished Hollywood “little bungalow” houses a forced re-enactment of family life 17 years earlier. Dad, a retired U.S. attorney, spends all day listening to National Public Radio, most nights tippling; Mom, a memorably mimicked hausfrau, is full of mom-ish good intentions and maddening cluelessness. Despite their quarrels, these two are so all-American square they’re practically cubist. Any vestige of privacy or independence vanishes in their wake.
Adding baroque dimensions to an already grim situation, Julia finds herself diagnosed out of the blue with cervical cancer. (She eventually has to undergo a hysterectomy within days of her brother’s death.) Sweeney delivers all this in a breathless, endearingly swacked manner, always digressing into oft-hilarious illustrations of this ungainly household setup.
Her timing is dead-on, her affect dizzy without ever toppling into preciousness. But the approach yields mixed results: For all the laughs here, we never get a grasp on the extraordinary stress these multiple disasters must have wrought. Such discretion in an inherently confessional form feels odd, even disingenuous. There are fleeting glimpses of Mike’s hideous radiation therapies; and the terminal patient himself sounds like a model of gallows-humor wit under impossible circumstances. But he’s also a cipher — the entire adult life Mike’s now leaving behind rates nary a mention. Sweeney references her own episodes of despair, panic and family-crazed claustrophobia only in passing or jokey ways.
There’s a stronger, more cathartic narrative design here that she and director Greg Kachel haven’t excavated yet. When they do, “God Said, ‘Ha!'” should gain an emotional resonance to match its often sparkling humor. Still, this is a likable showcase. Tech aspects are suitably bare-bones, with just a music stand onstage for note consultation and subtle input from Jeff Rowlings’ lighting design.