Somewhere between Sigmund Freud and Dr. Phil lies Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer -- or, simply, "Dr. Ruth," as millions of Americans know her. In the 1980s and '90s, the diminutive, German-born sex therapist became a household name, thanks to her call-in radio show and TV talk show. Her frank talk about sex titillated audiences -- and amused them, given ... well, that quirky little voice of hers.
"Sheez lehrned my eksent," says Westheimer, 85, speaking of Debra Jo Rupp, 62, a veteran actress best known for Fox's "That '70s Show."
Rupp is now starring in "Becoming Dr. Ruth," a new one-woman play that opened Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre on Oct. 29. In a season offering several staged bios, on Broadway and Off ("Janis," about Janis Joplin; "Lady Day," about Billie Holiday; "700 Sundays," Billy Crystal's one-man-show), "Ruth" seems to offer the most improbable of subjects.
But as audiences follow Westheimer's life story, from German childhood to years in Switzerland, Israel, France and New York, they learn there's a lot more to this woman than sex.
"I'd always thought of her as quote unquote 'Dr. Ruth,'" says playwright Mark St. Germain, who's taken on therapists before. (He wrote the acclaimed play "Freud's Last Session.")
It shocked him to learn her sex therapy days -- and ascension to celeb status -- came late in life.
"She was in her 50s when that began," he continues. "Everything that came before is what allowed her to be this personality everyone embraces."
PLAYING DR. RUTH
What came before -- seeing her father taken away by SS soldiers, fleeing the Nazis at age 10 (her mother and grandmother, unable to leave Germany, got Westheimer to Switzerland in a rare "kindertransport" evacuation), coping with loss (her family's fate is unknown), training as a sniper (yes -- for real -- to help defend Israel in the late 1940s), not to mention three marriages, two children and a dollhouse obsession -- is the stuff actresses dream of. But to play Dr. Ruth, you've first got to master the "eksent."
"Oh, that was a nightmare," Rupp says, seated in her dressing room after a recent performance. The room is filled with artifacts of an actor's life. Bouquet of roses. Bag of Twizzlers. Wig spray.
"The Rs are the hardest for me -- rrrright and Rrrrruth," she says, demonstrating the German rolling of Rs in the back of the throat.
Rupp studied with a vocal coach to pin down the strange amalgam that is Westheimer's accent, a mix of German, Hebrew, French and English.
The two women started off cordial, but businesslike, Rupp recalls. Rupp worried that Westheimer might bristle at her onstage portrayal. But as Westheimer is fond of saying, "I know what I don't know." Good sex, she knows. Good theater, less so.
The play is set in 1997, in Westheimer's apartment on the eve of her moving. She casually chatters to the audience as if we're there helping her pack boxes. There are lots of laughs, emotional turns and "bubble whap."
The show ran in New England first. And by now, Rupp and Westheimer have grown close.
"There were some things she wouldn't allow to go into the show -- private things," says Rupp. But Westheimer has shared some of those details with the actress, so her performance is authentic. "Ruth says to me, 'We're friends for life now,' which is kind of great."
Westheimer wasn't always enthused. On first hearing St.Germain's idea, through a mutual acquaintance, she wanted no part of it.
But after hearing his "very sweet" message on her answering machine, she invited the playwright over for coffee.
"I went," St. Germain explains, "and a couple minutes into it she brings out all these books she's written, and I say, 'Does this mean we're doing the play?' And she said, 'Oh, yes.'"
German Jews are not stereotypically quick decision-
makers, says Westheimer, but "in this country of ours, you have to make decisions fast, and I think I'm able to do that."
She liked that neither
St.Germain nor Rupp is Jewish. It reflects the show's "universal" appeal, she says.
Opening up about her private life, however, was tough.
"When we first met," St.Germain recalls, "she said, 'I do not let my feelings show, and if I ever wanted to cry I'd go in a room, lock the door and no one would ever see.' I think that's a big part of her."
PUSHING DR. RUTH
St. Germain spent months researching her life and slowly pressing her on delicate subjects. He also spoke with her children.
In some ways, it's a family project. Westheimer and her children all contributed family photos, which are projected on a back wall.
"The kids have never looked at their mother's life like this -- all in one sitting," says Rupp. "I mean, they know these stories. But I think there's a pride ... and ... now I'm gonna cry. I'm just gonna cry," she says, tears welling in her eyes.
"I want people to leave the theater realizing she's a survivor," says Rupp. "And I want them to leave ... loving their family more than they did when they came in. Because that's what this is about. Family. Home."
"People ask if it's difficult seeing sad aspects of my life onstage ... and I say yes," says Westheimer. "But I have to make a difference in this world because I'm the one alive -- 1,500,000 Jewish children perished. That gives me the courage, the push. ... I had to do this play, like an archaeological dig into my past. Even if it's painful. It's important ... for the younger generation. I have to be a ... testimonial. It's my obligation."
As for the play itself?
"Oh, I hope it keeps running and running," says Westheimer. "Like me!"
THE DOCTOR IS IN
WHAT Dr. Ruth discusses the play and answers questions in a series of chats following select performances.
WHEN | WHERE After 7 p.m. Wednesday shows on Nov. 6, 13, 20 and Dec. 18, Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St.
INFO The talks are included with tickets to the above four shows; tickets $79; 212-239-6200; BecomingDoctorRuth.com