It may be revisiting Off Broadway after a lengthy run in the early ’90s, but “Family Secrets” doesn’t feel like a revival. This one-woman show about a cheerily dysfunctional Jewish family has the freshness and surprise of the latest downtown discovery. Much of the credit goes to Sherry Glaser, who performs all five members of the Fisher clan and, along with Greg Howells, has written a script that shows no sign of its age.
The writing remains sturdy because the characters are crafted with enough detail to place them in a unique world. They may face very familiar trials — childbirth, aging, domestic squabbles — but the Fishers’ responses rarely feel canned because they rise organically from specific emotional lives. We can both recognize these people and be surprised by them.
As writer and actor, Glaser’s zenith arrives with Bev, a middle-aged suburban mom. Beginning with an explanation of why she pampers her dog (“Once you’re a mother, you’re always a mother, right?”), the actor creates a lovable, warm-hearted woman who laughs (loudly) at her own jokes and freely dispenses wisdom on therapy and housekeeping.
Liking Bev is so easy, in fact, that it stings when her story turns dark. But as she describes her mental collapse, Glaser never trades Bev’s good-natured chortling for self-pity. We finally realize she’s laughing because she’s wise, and her segment ends with hard-earned, believable hope.
Four more Fishers like Bev would make for a decent show, but “Family Secrets” opts for contrast. For one thing, Bev’s husband, Mort, has none of his wife’s inner peace. Glaser plays him as heartbroken and disapproving, gnarled by the thought of his daughter Fern’s bisexuality.
Director Bob Balaban steadily guides Glaser through this tricky scene, helping her keep Mort sympathetically bewildered as he rejects his own child. Even as other family members thrive, this man’s self-inflicted sadness complicates their lives.
Because, really, one person’s feelings affect the group: That’s the cost of being a family. That point is cleverly made in a conceit that has Glaser changing costumes in front of us. She moves seamlessly between monologues, finishing one and starting the next while swapping out wigs and shirts. We’re forced to see that all the characters are literally in this together.
That larger complexity excuses some hoary cliches. The last speaker, Grandma Rose, particularly suffers from the homily disease, invoking one greeting card after another as she chatters on about love. Fortunately, Glaser’s perf stays lively enough to keep the segment afloat, and the final moment cuts the sweetness with the right amount of regret.
Only teenager Sandra fails to reach the levels of her kin. Unlike the rest, she doesn’t have a story to tell. Glaser and Howells saddle her instead with a checklist of crises, including drug addiction, bulimia and rape. And since she’s just a laundry list of dilemmas, Glaser struggles to make her more than a collection of surly adolescent tics.
But it isn’t Sandra who sticks in the memory: It’s the rest of this family, funny and touching enough to justify their return to Gotham.