Julia Sweeney on motherhood and God
She returns after a long break with ‘Older & Wider,’ a solo show full to bursting with wry self-observations.
Julia Sweeney is no stranger to the solo show. “God Said, ‘Ha!’ ” from 1996 recounted her brother’s struggle with terminal cancer as well as her own diagnosis, just weeks before his death, of a rare cervical cancer. Her 2003 “In the Family Way” delved into her decision as a single woman to adopt a child from China.
For the last 10 years, Sweeney has been largely out of the public eye, living outside Chicago with her husband and daughter and embracing (mostly willingly but at times reluctantly) the role of housewife — a surreal disconnect from her previous life as a bankable Hollywood name and “Saturday Night Live” alum.
That second act in life proves fodder for “Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider,” a riotously funny one-woman show at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, a 125-seat venue perfectly scaled to Sweeney’s intimate disclosures. Clad all in black, speaking into a microphone (she does a riff or two on wielding such a blatant phallic symbol), Sweeney spins comic gold from the ordinary. She transmutes seemingly mundane incidents into something rich and strange.
Part stream-of-consciousness narrative, part finely honed stand-up routine, “Older & Wider” is vintage Sweeney: as casual and off-the-cuff as a gossipy pal at a coffee klatch. Yes, some years have passed since we last heard from her, and she has the gray hair to prove it. And perhaps she’s a little wider (yet another subject she exploits to tart comic effect). But whatever her age and whatever her dimensions, she remains a fullthrottle charmer with the observational skills of Proust.
Never holding back on her unabashedly liberal political and anti-religious views (conservatives be forewarned — this may not be your ticket), Sweeney excoriates the present administration with gusto. She describes waking up screaming after learning that her daughter’s boyfriend voted for Trump — which she describes as an “embarrassing under-reaction.”
A devout atheist, Sweeney nonetheless signed up for a Bible study class that left her pondering the various versions of the New Testament gospels. In perhaps her most uproarious bit, she re-imagines the Gospels as progressive drafts of a screenplay she has written, annoyingly tweaked by an overbearing studio executive. (A tie-in with Mondavi prompts another rewrite, presumably to include the wedding feast at Cana.) When the studio eventually passes on her project, she learns that the Bible story of Revelation, written by two heavyweight directors who dropped acid together in the desert, has been greenlighted and is “testing through the roof.”
Always wry, always offhand, Sweeney remains one of the most talented monologists of her generation. Yet she somehow manages to balance her acerbity with an essential sweetness — a refreshing quality in this era of internet snark.
“Older & Wider” sold out its original six-day run and then a one-week extension. It’s a crowd-pleaser, including is that hilarious story about her daughter’s Trump-supporting boyfriend, a quiet youth who flies under the family’s radar for months before coming out as a conspiracy theorist whose news outlet of choice is InfoWars. (The relationship, needless to say, doesn’t end well.)
Sweeney confides that her daughter expressly told her to include that story in her show, and it is only with her express permission that we are privy to it. In other words, Sweeney wouldn’t embarrass a loved one or go for a cheap laugh at the expense of another. That’s class. And that’s Julia.
ACTRESS-monologist Julia Sweeney is at the Geffen Playhouse with a new set of stories from her life.