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Theatre in Review: Alex Edelman: Just for Us (Soho Playhouse)

Alex Edelman. Photo: Monique Carboni

So, a Jewish guy walks into a white supremacist meeting and...

This is not the setup for a joke. Or, rather, it is, but isn't. In any case, in Alex Edelman's telling, it's an occasion for hilarity underlined with peril. As Edelman will be the first to tell you, he isn't an assimilated secular Jew; he was raised in an Orthodox family, attended yeshiva, and has a brother who competed in the Olympics for Israel. Not that he is reverent about his upbringing: Talking about the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, he adds that the smashed glass represents "happiness." It's not the kind of joke you tell to a roomful of haters.

Just for Us recounts Edelman's on-a-whim exploratory visit to a racist club in Queens -- driven by curiosity and, I bet, a search for material -- filling out this narrative with riotous digressions on his family and the oddities of living in a world that regards him with anything from bemusement to unadorned antisemitism. Or, as he puts it, "I come from a racist part of Boston...called Boston."

Employing body language indicative of a scarecrow on a rampage and ramming home punchlines with drill-bit accuracy, Edelman takes us on a tour of his upside-down life. After a BBC appearance leads to an outpouring of hate messages on Twitters, he gathers up the senders into a list, labeling them "Jewish National Fund Contributors." His mother's attempt at ginning up a Christmas celebration for a distraught Christian friend spins out of control, ending with a holiday tree (topped with a dreidel) in the family's garage and a baffled, furious rabbi on the phone, wondering why the young Edelman and his brother are in school, boasting about their encounter with Santa Claus. Edelman is merciless about his brother's Olympic career, in the sliding sport known as skeleton. Since Israel is a country without winter sports -- indeed, without winter -- the team must train in Germany ("The irony to end all ironies," he adds). He teasingly renames his brother "the frozen chosen," referring to this sporting activities as "shul runnings."

Meanwhile there's that gang of bigots, including a fetching young lady (leading Edelman to muse, "What a great first scene for a rom-com!"), an old woman obsessed with mural-sized jigsaw puzzles, and a nervous gatekeeper who keeps on giving his code name ("Cortez") even though everyone else calls him Matt. As it happens, they're the saddest of losers, consumed with fury over, of all things, Prince Harry's marriage to Meghan Markle. As Edelman points out, the Nazi Party they aren't.

At the same time, Just for Us is a fascinating meditation on empathy and its limits. The same impulse that led his mother to abrogate Jewish law to put on a Yuletide celebration for a suffering friend has Edelman noting what a sad and sorry bunch are his new companions. (He has an outstanding riff about what it must be like to be a racist in Queens, arguably the most diverse city in America; talk about white fragility.) Then he accidentally outs himself and finds that his attempt at understanding is not returned. The outburst of hatred that follows packs a considerable shock, even when coming from this ragtag bunch.

It's a fast, funny, thoughtful 75 minutes, packed with stray thoughts that will catch you unawares. (I treasure how he infuriated a UK audience by renaming Brexit "The Great British Break-Off.") This is a highly original approach to stand-up comedy: Edelman's ability to spin humor out of a festering social problem, without trivializing it, is something to cherish. --David Barbour

(23 March 2022)

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