Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show “God Said, ‘Ha!’ ” opens on an endearingly unassuming note, with a tale about the damage a casual visit to Starbucks can do to one’s self-image. But it’s not the everyday terrors of life that are the true subject of the autobiographical show, written by Sweeney herself, but the more momentous ones: In Sweeney’s case, an annus horribilus which she spent caring for a beloved brother dying of lymphatic cancer, only to face her own cancer diagnosis just weeks before his death.
That the actress, best known for her stint on “Saturday Night Live” and the androgynous Pat character she created for the show, has made a consistently comic monologue of her darkest moments is a testament to her engagingly straightforward writing and her infectious, self-deprecating affability.
Beginning the anecdotal assemblage with a few stories that detail her childhood affection for her brother Mike and the oddities of her parents, who come to visit her in New York and display amortifying suburbanity Sweeney expertly lampoons (their opposing views on “Nunsense” make up a particularly tart routine), Sweeney almost suddenly introduces the darker text of her story when she offhandedly mentions the Stage 4 cancer diagnosis of her brother –“There is no Stage 5,” she adds. “Stage 5 is death.”
Her newly purchased, one-bedroom L.A. bungalow becomes a care ward, as both Mike and her parents move in for the duration of the treatment.
As the shadow of the disease looms ever larger over their lives, with the family piling into Julia’s car for Mike’s five-times-weekly chemotherapy, the perversities of modern life continue to serve up fodder for amusement, as Sweeney finds herself retreating toward emotional teenhood in the face of her mother’s well-meaning but suffocating attentions.
With deadpan irony, Sweeney relates the grim punchline to her family’s horror — her own “sympathy cancer”– which requires a hysterectomy weeks after her brother’s eventual death.
Sweeney is an expert mimic, and her goofy demeanor — half gamin, half middle-class matron — is charming.
Her pretentiousness bordering on self-consciousness is right for such potently sad material, which might seem manipulative if presented with the air of a “performance.”
The matter-of-fact tone Sweeney uses to detail both the clinical humiliations of her brother’s treatment and the frustrations of trying to accommodate her mother’s absurdities adds comic poignancy to both.
Sweeney and director Greg Kachel might improve the show by smoothing the sometimes abrupt transitions between stories — these uneven shifts occasionally give the performance the herky-jerky rhythm of a standup routine.
But the appeal of the evening is in the end its artlessness. On Thomas Biggert’s homey living-room set, with smoothly delineated lighting by Fred Allen and Jeff Rowlings, Sweeney is on intimate terms with her audience, and her story is one that needs no artifice to move us.
In displaying how humor can give solace for even the deepest losses, Sweeney doesn’t let God — or fate, or tragedy — get the last laugh.