With a shyness he often lends to his characters, Ben Stiller slipped nearly unnoticed past the concession stand selling $5 Dixie cups of wine and into the fifth row of a 99-seat theater on the second story of a Manhattan building one recent weeknight for a one-woman show still in development.
The blockbuster actor of “Zoolander” and “Meet the Fockers” fame was not there scouting talent, but rather to watch his sister, Amy Stiller, in “Just Trust,” her one-woman show about being, as she calls it, “the only nonfamous person in a very famous family.”
The other two people in that family are their parents: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, the married comedy team known as Stiller and Meara.
Ms. Stiller, 57, a lifelong actress and comedian, has done regional theater and Off Broadway, and has landed many smaller roles in films and television, including “The King of Queens,” “Bored to Death” and “Inside Amy Schumer” — not to mention parts in her brother’s films.
But more than anything else she has plugged away for decades at auditions and workshops aspiring to a bit of the stardom enjoyed by the rest of her family. This has caused no small amount of angst and soul searching that she has now channeled it into a show that seeks to chronicle all of it.
The production is an onstage journey through her life and career, from a childhood growing up with a showbiz prodigy brother and parents whose stage life seemed intertwined with their domestic relationship. (Ms. Meara died in 2015 at 85.)
With uncanny impersonations, Ms. Stiller slips seamlessly from character to character, from a spot-on version of Jane Fonda, her teenage obsession, to her childhood nanny from Jamaica, Hazel, who would tell her and Ben in her strong Caribbean accent to tend to their religious duties, including the kosher dictate: “Man ya don’t be mixing ya meat wit ya milk.” Naturally, Ms. Stiller’s impressions of her parents are uncanny.
Yet the inescapable motif of the show is her brother’s soaring career overshadowing hers, leaving her with the compulsion to catch up to him professionally.
Onstage, she recalled an acting teacher suggesting that therapy might help her live up to the family fame.
“I’m brothers with Ben Stiller,” she recalled responding. “Of course I was seeing a shrink.”
Her brother laughed along with the rest of the audience and said later that his sister’s show “goes to the heart of our childhood,” thanks partly to her impersonations that “really channel our parents.”
“She’s willing to kind of go to the reality of her experience for the show,” Mr. Stiller said, adding that having to make it on her own merits as an actor from such an established family “is just a weird experience to go through on any level, and I appreciate that she’s taken that experience and made something of it, because it’s hard to deal with on any level.”
Ms. Stiller was part of her brother’s film career from the very beginning. She starred in the Super 8 movies he made while they were kids living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where their childhood was full of late-night showbiz parties and watching their parents work out routines based on their real-life partnership.
“There was always this connection in our family,” said Ms. Stiller, who said it was often hard to discern whether her parents were really fighting or just rehearsing stage arguments.
In her show, Ms. Stiller recounts how she and Ben tagged along with their parents as they did theater, films and television work, whether performing regularly on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,’’ or making countless other film and television appearances.
Sometimes, the children landed cameos themselves. In her show, Ms. Stiller recounts her role as a flower girl in the 1970 film “Lovers and Other Strangers.”
When their parents played the lead couple in a theatrical tour of the play “Prisoner of Second Avenue,” Amy and Ben would dress up as their characters and perform the show for the cast at their hotel.
“We knew the entire first act,” recalled Ms. Stiller, who acted in productions at Calhoun High School in Manhattan and at Emerson College, before leaving college to study at Circle in the Square Theater School in Midtown Manhattan.
Her parents’ stardom hardly shielded her from the vicissitudes of a struggling actor: the years of small roles and modest productions, the many side jobs waiting tables, working retail and giving reflexology foot massages.
In contrast, her little brother’s success came early and hardly ever slowed down. Ben began securing Broadway, movie and television roles as a teenager, and he would go on to star in, direct, or produce more than 50 feature films and become a globally recognized movie star .
“That was the hard part for me,” she said, sitting recently in Sarabeth’s restaurant on the Upper West Side where she worked as a hostess in the 1990s.
She has performed her show, which is directed by Kathryn Markey, about 15 times in various locations since 2016, to help develop it, and is now seeking investors for a steady run.
The impetus to mine her life and career for material came partly during a roast of her parents several years ago when a speaker saved a couple of barbs for her, joking that she had 10 films under her belt — “all from the Blockbuster video store.”
In another jab, he teased Ms. Stiller that she enjoyed daily lunches with her father, during which “he tells her she’s just as funny as Ben.”
That stung, she said. “But in my head, I’m thinking, ‘This is good material’ — as I’m suffering.”
Indeed, her father is a source of inspiration and encouragement. Mr. Stiller, 91, who is known to younger generations for roles in “Seinfeld” and “Zoolander,” goes to many of his daughter’s performances and offers feedback.
“My dad taught both me and Ben to be fearless,” Ms. Stiller said. “He said, ‘Find a stage, find an audience, and do it.’”
And her father believes Ms. Stiller’s show allows her to display her share of the family talent.
“Amy’s very funny,” Jerry Stiller said. “She’s very much like Anne in a lot of ways, but better. Amy’s a natural. Nobody taught her to perform or gave her a cue. She went out and did it on her own.”
For Ms. Stiller, a breakthrough in writing the show came when she and her brother presented an award to their parents at a ceremony in 2012 that included Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep.
With no prepared remarks, she cracked up the crowd with her Jamaican nanny imitation, a spontaneous riff encouraged by her mother’s advice to just trust her actor’s instinct to take risks.
It turned out to be Anne Meara’s last public appearance before her death. Ms. Stiller was able to complete her project, and her mother’s advice — “Just trust” — became the title.
“It was almost like I needed her to pass, for me to finish writing the show,” Ms. Stiller. “I felt like it was my gift to her and her gift to me.”