When she was ten years old, two seminal events happened to the girl who would become Dr. Ruth, celebrity sex therapist, as we learn in the funny, touching, lovely solo show “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which has opened at the Westside Theater.
She discovered a book about marital sex that her parents kept hidden on the top shelf of their closet. “Ohhhhhh, that’s why my parents close the door at night: They wrestle with no clothes on.”
But the second event is more surprising to those who know Dr. Ruth only as a character that Mel Brooks could have created — a 4’7”, 85-year-old lady with the Sigmund Freud accent who talks publicly about orgasms and giggles “like a gerbil in heat.”
In 1938, when the girl, then named Karola Siegel, was 10, the Nazis came to her family’s home in Frankfurt, Germany and took her father away. Karola never saw her father again.
How this Holocaust orphan wound up a regular on David Letterman is a remarkable tale told efficiently by playwright Mark St. Germain (best known for Freud’s Last Session) and effectively delivered by actress Debra Jo Rupp (best-known for her role on the TV series “That 70’s Show.” ) They take us on Dr. Ruth’s journey from Germany to Switzerland (one of only 300 German Jewish children that country agreed to take in, out of some half million, most of whom the Nazis killed), then after the war to an Israeli kibbutz, then to Jerusalem to Paris to New York – all while never straying from Dr. Ruth’s apartment in Washington Heights.
It is moving day in 1997, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer is arguing on the telephone with her publicist, whom she calls her Minister of Communications, who, like her children, is trying to persuade her to stay put in the place where she has lived for more than three decades, with its wonderful view through a picture window of the George Washington Bridge. Her pending move provides the thinnest of dramatic frames (we eventually learn why she is moving), but this matters little, because once she notices the audience — “I’m so glad you’re here. This is much better than talking to myself” – Dr. Ruth the storyteller is unleashed.
With minimal interruptions, Dr. Ruth goes mostly chronologically through her life, a show-and-tell accompanied by photographs that she holds up (each simultaneously projected on her window, which becomes a screen), then packs away. We learn of her family, her three husbands, her roundabout road to her vocation as sex therapist, and the only sexual problems she will not treat: “Sadomasochism, because a therapist has to visualize and I don’t want to. And bestiality — I am not a veterinarian.”
Occasionally, she takes a telephone call; one is from her moving man, who asks for her advice. “Stop right there, Mike….why do you think your penis is small?…Love your penis.” Later, she re-enacts the questions and answers from her radio program, with the questions coming from recorded voices.
But her occupation takes up only a part of the “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” no more than a third of its 90 intermission-less minutes. This seems about right for such an extraordinary life – she was, among other things, a sniper for the Haganah, the Jewish Underground Army, as well as a messenger, “because there was less of me to shoot at.”
Dr. Ruth’s self-promotion, as unabashed as her vocabulary, is only hinted at here, and we hear from none of her critics. There are one or two sad, horrible or sentimental moments where a tad more restraint would have been more potent. Much of what the character Dr. Ruth relates is familiar to those who have read the woman’s autobiography, or just Googled her name online (or, like me, interviewed her for a magazine profile.) Yet Debra Jo Rupp is able to communicate Dr. Ruth’s humor and warmth and inspiring resilience in a way that only seems possible on a stage. And, though Rupp is a full seven inches taller than Ruth Westheimer, she even manages to convince us that she’s as physically short as the larger-than-life woman she is portraying.
Becoming Dr. Ruth
Written by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Stage design by Brian Prather, costume design by Jennifer Moeller, lighting design by Scott Pinkney, sound design by Jessica Paz
Cast: Debra Jo Rupp
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission