The show features adults revisiting their own teen angst onstage by sharing their original childhood artifacts -- journals, letters, poems, lyrics, illustrations, song and dance numbers -- with perfect strangers in the audience. Very few of the performers are actors, which often makes their readings seem even more revealing and unfiltered as they read from their childhood keepsakes and offer comments on them. Many of these, which currently are being performed in versions of the show in five cities across the country, have been compiled into a book titled, "Mortified: Real Words, Real People, Real Pathetic" (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2006), offering both the original text and a view from the adult perspective. And it is this duality of real exposure and the distance of time that makes this so poignant -- and mortifying.
The material often reveals the writer's innermost fears. Here is Sharone Jelden writing when she was 17:
"Dear Diary ....When you're Jewish and cheap you're doomed. At school, I have to act extra-giving because I'm a Jew. Like if I'm in the food line to buy my Lorna Doones and tea in the morning and some popular girl like Cindy Mcklansky is in line in front of me, short of change or something, I have to give her money. I don't have a choice; it's a requirement."
The topic of religious identity -- Jewish and Christian -- is heavily featured, such as in pieces like "Cheap Jew," "The Unholy Land" "Gotta Have a (Boy) Friend Named Jesus," "Courting Catholic Guilt," but it's far from the only subject excavated in "Mortified."
"Religious identity and kids fitting in, that's one of the top three things kids write about," says David Nadelberg, creator, producer and self-titled "angstologist." "We're just reflecting what kids go through: romance, religion, peer groups, depression, parental relationships, divorce and remarriage and even eating disorders."
Nadelberg first came across the unlikely combination of shame and humor when he was in his 20s, before the advent of reality television.
"I found some really wretched ancient love letters that I'd never sent to a poor, unfortunate girl, and I started really laughing at it," he said. "I knew my friends would laugh at it, too."
In 2002, he mounted his first production of "Mortified" to a sold-out audience in Los Angeles, and people began to ask when the next show would be. It now runs monthly in Los Angeles, with the next shows scheduled for Jan, 24 and Feb. 21. "Mortified" also now plays regularly in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.
The show does not aim for the kind of exhibitionism of reality shows, Nadelberg says. "It's not 'look at me, look at me,' that's not our focus. Our comedy philosophy is we want the audience to 'laugh at, cheer for.'"
He says the point is not to mock what stupid kids we were, but to show warmth and humor in the pain. In fact, as part of the Mortified "brand" -- the five-city shows, the book, as well as animated YouTube videos -- "Mortified" has begun to bring its performances back to a different kind of audience: Kids. Last month, for example, there was a special show for a Wilshire Boulevard Temple youth group. Afterward, kids came up to the performers and thanked them. Nadelberg says they showed the kids that "we're all living these lives, and then we survived."
It's hard to believe they will survive, though, when listening to the overwrought angst and suffering in the pieces, which include stories of everything from shoplifting, cutting school, boy trouble, parental problems to coming out to issues of popularity and coming out as a homosexual and homesickness.
For example, from the 1976 summer camp letters of Adam Gropman:
"Dear Mom and Dad, I can't stand it anymore!!! All the kids in my cabin hate me! They steal and wreck my things! I can't escape it! I want ... to go ... KILL MYSELF!!!!"
His parents reply calmly:
"Dear Adam, "Think about something ... you feel really good about. And then before you know it, you won't feel like a Gloomy Gus anymore!"
This is right before Adam's parents finally pull him from camp -- none too soon, because a day after he left, a bunkmate burned down two cabins.
And therein lies the divide between people as adults -- possessing life perspective and the ability to deal with crisis -- and children, who experience intense fears, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, love and passion. Adults sometimes forget that it was all too real.
"There's a difference between this and natural embarrassment," says Neil Katcher, co-producer of "Mortified LA." "A lot of what the show is about is aggressive embarrassment.
"People go on stage, knowing that what they wrote was embarrassing when they were younger. Allowing yourself to be embarrassed is the most cathartic thing about the show," he says -- for both performers and audience members. The cathartic thing "is very Jewish in my mind."
"A lot of Jewish kids kept diaries. We're brought up to be more expressive about our emotions. A lot of us had particularly strong mothers," Katcher says. Even in Hebrew school you learn how to debate and discuss, he says. "That translates to people who think a lot more and who have a lot of inner debate and inner struggle, and it creates very expressive [people]. With really good inner debates."
Nadelberg agrees. "It feeds off a Jewish stereotype ... we're just neurotic. We need a place to channel that neurosis. When we grow up and have money and we become Woody Allen, but until that time, we have our journals and letters and pages of horrific poetry. And that's where we capture that."
"Mortified LA" will be performed on Jan. 24 and Feb. 21 at 8 p.m. at King King, 6555 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.
For tickets call (877) 238-5596 or visit www.getmortified.com
David Nadelberg, Angstologist