Rhea Perlman rented an antique gown from a movie costume house for her wedding to Danny DeVito in 1982. She’s Jewish, he’s Italian Catholic, but neither a rabbi nor a priest officiated. “Danny found this French-horn player in the Los Angeles Philharmonic who also happened to do weddings,” Perlman remembered with a laugh. She donned her dress as DeVito rushed home during his lunch break from “Taxi” so they could march down the aisle to “Our Gang’s” Alfalfa crooning “I’m in the Mood for Love.”
As Perlman told the story, her daughter, Lucy DeVito, 26, laughed; she and Perlman are the first mother-daughter pair to star in “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” currently at the Geffen Playhouse. The play stitches together vignettes of how clothing unlocks women’s memories — some of them poignant, some hilarious and others embarrassing. Written by sisters Nora and Delia Ephron — based on Ilene Beckerman’s best-seller — the Ephrons have described the play as kind of like “The Vagina Monologues” minus the vaginas, with actresses in a rotating cast reading from scripts.
The show has proven so successful that it has been running in New York for eight months and has been extended through at least August 1 at the Geffen. (Perlman and DeVito are cast through July 3.)
Stories of first bras and childhood secrets interweave with memories of prom dresses and shoe lust. A breast cancer patient clings to thoughts of the sexy lingerie she’ll wear after her reconstruction surgery; a bathrobe painfully reminds a daughter of her late mother; and the narrator, Gingy (Perlman), buys a marked-down pink satin princess-style dress to wed a much-older Catholic man. “Here are the words my grandmother uttered on this occasion,” Gingy recalls: “You’re killing me.”
Perlman, who has played her share of acidic mothers — as the prickly barmaid Carla on “Cheers” and now on HBO’s “Hung” — was far more benevolent when Lucy, at 12, eschewed The Gap for vintage clothing shops. “I was so conscious of what my mother had said sometimes, that I would bite my tongue,” Perlman said. “I’d come down in some outfit and it would be, ‘Didn’t you get dressed for this?’ ”
Lucy — who at 4 feet 11 is even more petite than her mother — recalled how an elderly relative responded when her off-the-shoulder blouse revealed a bra strap: “Whatta you mean, it’s supposed ta show?”
Issues of clothing, Delia Ephron points out, often delve into mother-daughter territory. “It’s one of the first ways you define yourself — one of the first things your mom lets you do is pick your clothes,” Ephron said in an e-mail. “And when you’re a teenager, clothing plays a huge part in rebelling from your mom. Also, we all have shopping experiences with our mothers, usually huge bonding experiences, and all of us remember all the things our mothers said about clothes and dressing.”
Lucy’s bra strap story is recounted with affection: The Perlman-DeVitos are reputed to be one of the most devoted clans in Hollywood. Perlman was smitten by her future husband when she saw him play a demented stable boy off-Broadway in “The Shrinking Bride.” “He just had a very big energy that I found extremely attractive — even though he was playing a moron,” she said, as Lucy
rolled her eyes. “Two weeks later, we moved in together.”
Lucy, the first of three children, was born in 1983 and grew up as her mother earned four Emmy Awards and her father became an A-list director and producer of such films as the Oscar-winning “Erin Brockovich.” Lucy caught the acting bug at the private Oakwood School in North Hollywood, and, after graduating from Brown University, earned titular roles in Damien Atkins’ “Lucy” at Manhattan’s Ensemble Studio Theatre and “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Intiman in Seattle.
As Lucy prepared to play the Holocaust heroine, she was able to draw on a trip she had made with her entire family to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam; later, the DeVitos visited Auschwitz.
“The reality of what happened hit so much more when we were actually in that place,” she said. “I grew up celebrating all the Jewish holidays because my mother is Jewish, but this brought me even closer to those roots.”
Having famous parents, Lucy said, has been “both a blessing and a curse. “I’m pretty aware when I walk into a room that people might have an opinion about me already.”
“There’s always that thing of, ‘How did you get the part,’ ” Perlman added, “and ‘Are you really that good?’ I really respect Lucy because she has been so conscious of trying to do things on her own.”
A “Love, Loss” director was so impressed by Lucy’s turn as an autistic teen in an off-Broadway production that she cast her in the Ephrons’ play; Lucy’s consent was sought before Perlman was invited to co-star.
“[Lucy’s] comedy has such an emotional depth,” Delia Ephron said. “And Rhea — oh my gosh, I’ve been obsessed with her since ‘Taxi.’ ... She’s an original, and so is her daughter. Rhea has a phenomenal rapport with the audience. Both Rhea and Lucy do, and since ‘Love, Loss’ is a bit of a girlfriend fest, it’s great.”
Both mother and daughter identify with the play’s themes about women and body image. “I definitely relate to the line, ‘I had to choose — heels or think,’ ” said Lucy, who is wearing sensible sneakers for an upcoming rehearsal. “They’re so painful, but they make you look good.”
“One of the reasons I didn’t feel good in a dress I wore last weekend is because I wore it with flats — and that takes a whole lot from a dress,” Perlman agreed.
“But I’ve got bunions and [sore] knees, and I can’t wear heels any longer, I’m sad to say.”
“Love, Loss and What I Wore,” at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Through Aug. 1 (Perlman and DeVito through July 3). For show times and tickets, call (310) 208-5454 or visit geffenplayhouse.com.