On a recent chilly Sunday afternoon, between the brick walls of the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village, the comedian Alex Edelman performed “Just For Us,” his bonkers solo show that emerges as a penetrating portrait of Jewish identity in contemporary America.
Presented by the celebrated comedian/monologist Mike Birbiglia, the Off-Broadway production tells the true story of the Orthodox-raised Edelman covertly attending a meeting of white nationalist anti-Semites a few years back in Queens.
Shortly after appearing on stage before the Cherry Lane’s back wall that projects a heart-shaped jigsaw puzzle, Edelman tells the audience that comics “have a responsibility” and then imbues the show’s remaining hour with some of the sharpest comedy in recent memory.
As a youth in the Boston suburb of Brookline, the thirty-two-year-old Edelman idolized not only contemporary standups such as Brian Regan and Gary Gulman but also Mel Brooks. “He’s the coolest,” Edelman says from his Upper East Side apartment, throat sore from a week of performances.
As Brooks did with “The Producers” or, more recently, Sarah Silverman during a surprise set at Long Beach’s The Beach House, Edelman improbably mines humor from Nazism and bigotry.
Discovering on Twitter a weeknight meeting of white nationalists in Astoria, Edelman adds its participants to his own fake list of contributors to the Jewish National Fund before secretly attending the meeting himself. There he finds the gruff man who goes only by Cortez, the elderly woman intensely trying to solve a big jigsaw puzzle, and an attractive xenophobe named Chelsea. “You never know,” Edelman says upon spotting her at the gathering or, as George Costanza says on “Seinfeld,” she’s “kind of a cute Nazi, though.”
“Just For Us” mostly tells of Edelman’s encounter with the white nationalists but the show truly compels as a comedic examination of Judaism itself. One joke involves a young Edelman reaching for a bacon-topped slice of pizza, which prompts his grandfather to say, “We don’t eat that. We’re Jewish.” The child Edelman then asks what that means. “It basically means that you’ll never be happy,” his grandfather answers.
Elaborating by phone, the comedian says, “It’s a joke, so obviously I’m simplifying, but I do think a big part of being Jewish is never being satisfied with an acceptable status quo and so also being Jewish, at least to me, means that most status quos are unacceptable.”
Edelman, however, qualifies that “Jews who live in their head tend to come up with great things” and continues that, “So much of my joy is derived from Judaism. If I can describe the show in a few sentences, one of the sentences would be, ‘Joyfully Jewish.’ Non-Jews enjoy the show, as well, but the show is a celebration of Judaism.”
The performer proceeds to chide himself that “maybe I’m giving myself too much credit,” but, from the mention of his Olympian brother who played the esoteric sport of skeleton for Israel to the story of his mother hosting a one-time Christmas to comfort a bereaved neighbor, he has certainly written a warm show.
“Just For Us,” which premiered to critical acclaim in 2018 at London’s Soho Theater and which marks Edelman’s New York stage debut, also has a lot to say (or ask). Directed by Adam Brace, the show is a pointedly comic exploration of a Jewish believer in a society where hatred persists.
Whether Edelman quips that he “grew up in a really racist part of Boston called Boston” or takes one of the “Whites Only” muffins on a tray at the White Nationalists meeting, he has wrenched humor from a dark corner of American life.
Commenting on anti-Semitism, the comedian says, “I think it’s important to understand in a clear-eyed way the perceptions that people have of Jews,” going onto decry certain stereotypes and tropes that have become associated with Judaism.
Edelman refuses in his storytelling to throw low blows at the religion that he still practices. Instead, he takes a documentary-like approach that he says is “more detailed and circumspect” and one in which he would rather “examine a person and pull out” his/her truth.
Consequently, he’s crafted perhaps his fiercest solo show yet and the one that he’s proudest of. He considers his previous shows, “Millenial,” which premiered at Edinburgh Fringe in 2014 and “Everything Handed to You,” which opened at England’s Leicester Comedy Festival in 2015 to be “like a charming little brother.” He believes that “Just For Us” is his most “sculpted work” and the one where his Judaism isn’t only a punchline but a deep interrogation of self.
The show does no less than ask: what does it mean to be Jewish in twenty-first century America? Can a Jewish individual ever find serenity amidst those intent on his/her elimination and on their own supremacy? More widely, the show questions: what do I believe in? What can I abide?
By the end of “Just For Us,” after recounting a tense night during which his very identity was threatened, Edelman holds compassion even for his aggressors. “Empathy is the default,” he tells the audience, then dishes a final punchline that finds hilarity in the madness.
“Just For Us” runs at the Cherry Lane Theatre at 38 Commerce Street through January 8. For more information and tickets, please visit the show’s website at www.justforusshow.com.
The show is a pointedly comic exploration of a Jewish believer in a society where hatred persists.