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Harrowing Humor

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Comedian Julia Sweeney describes the moment when “God Said, ‘Ha!’ ” in her wonderfully told one-woman show of that title. She had just gone through a divorce she characterizes as amicable, which is believable, considering her warm and non-confrontational persona. So she moved into a small house in Los Angeles and dreamed of the sophisticated dinner parties and happy single life that were to come.

And then, and then. And then her brother Mike was diagnosed with stage-four lymphatic cancer. There is no stage five. Mike moved in with her, into the bedroom in her perfect little house. And then her folks came down from Spokane, Wash., and moved into the guest bedroom, and Julia took the fold-out sofa bed. And all of her plans were interrupted, as this thirtysomething woman plunged back into a family dynamic from which she mistakenly thought she had achieved a grown-up, independent distance.

The ordeal of Mike’s cancer was enough for any human to deal with. But just weeks before her brother died, Sweeney herself was diagnosed with a rare cervical cancer. Sweeney relates her Job-like travails in an amazingly sweet, funny, touching monologue, full of beautifully shaped individual stories that add up to an honest and often hilarious portrait of a family in extremis. Originally developed at the Groundling Theatre and produced at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, “God Said, ‘Ha!’ ” is now at the Coronet Theatre in West Hollywood.

“You can’t get angry because of the enormity of the situation,” explains Sweeney as she details the many ways that family members drove one another crazy during this tense time. But it is her detailing of the small stuff that makes this show such a worthwhile journey. In one story, which sets up the family dynamic, she describes going out on the town in New York with her folks, before Mike got sick. Her mom--whom she imitates in a strangulated voice just a shade higher than her own--insists on seeing the one show Sweeney dreads: “Nunsense.”

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“I can’t explain why I didn’t want to see ‘Nunsense’ so much, but it might be my fear of Catholic vaudeville,” she says, proving herself a terrific theater critic as well as a playwright with wonderful phrasing.

Once her brother gets sick and the folks move in, well, the irritations and absurdities pour rain-like on Sweeney’s head. She offers wry observations of her parents--her mother’s storytelling technique is “a series of disconnected thoughts that she tries to string together and present as an idea,” which she demonstrates hilariously.

Her father, a retired U.S. attorney, listens to National Public Radio so much that Cokie Roberts is like another daughter to him. The styles of parents and daughter clash in all kinds of everyday ways. “If I used the word ‘pasta,’ it was as if I was throwing my big-city ways right in their face,” she says, and is soon cooking “noodles with red sauce.”

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Sweeney claims she has an “I do not exist” quality that ensures her order for a nonfat latte will always go overlooked at Starbucks. But, if she’s overlooked in the coffee line, Sweeney knows how to make herself heard on the stage, where she is helped by the seamless direction of Greg Kachel. The stories about the real source of the family’s sorrow, Mike’s illness and his endless series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, are told with restraint, dignity and also with much humor and compassion.

She memorializes Mike’s dark sense of humor, as he accuses her of having “sympathy cancer” and “cancer envy.” And, like a protective parent, she gently takes us from the time when the family is praying for Mike’s recovery to the transition when they find themselves praying that his suffering will be over.

Unlike “Time on Fire,” Evan Handler’s one-man show about his bout with leukemia, “God Said, ‘Ha!’ ” is not a harrowing ride through the belly of the medical system. Though Mike is skeptical about every doctor who treats him, Julia is not. She is that rare character--a genuinely sunny disposition who is also too smart and observant to ever be sappy. Her life force is her humor, something only barely tapped by Pat, the androgynous character she played for several years on “Saturday Night Live” and in the movie “It’s Pat.”

There’s something stirring about seeing Sweeney, her face free of all that Pat makeup or of any character’s eccentricities, just shining out at the audience, telling her tale. The unalloyed Julia is her best character ever. She’s the kind of person you’d want to be near in a horrible situation. And she tells her tale so free of self-pity or bitterness that she seems actually, authentically saintly, if saints could be hilariously funny and not conventionally religious, which I don’t think they can.

Anyway, the church’s loss is our gain--Julia Sweeney, cancer-free today, says “Ha” right back to God with the grace of an angel.

* “God Said, ‘Ha!,’ ” Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends June 30. $20-$25. (310) 657-7377. Running time: 2 hours.

A Happiest Cathedral Builders and Mambo! Entertainment production. Written and performed by Julia Sweeney. Directed by Greg Kachel.Sets Thomas Biggert. Lights Fred Allen. Produced by Jon Steingart.


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