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Theatre in Review: Not That Jewish (New World Stages)

Monica Piper. Photo: Carol Rosegg

When Monica Piper was seven, she was informed by a friend that because her family didn't attend temple on the High Holy Days, she wasn't that Jewish. Her father dismissed that as nonsense; after all, wasn't her mother in the kitchen that very minute, making chopped liver? Her grandmother told her simply that she had a Jewish heart. And then there were the Shabbat dinners at her aunt and uncle's apartment. Her mother told her, Yes, they were Jewish, didn't they vote Democrat? -- then delivered the definitive verdict: "Jewish, but not very religious." "I accepted this answer," Piper notes, "because I was seven and this was exhausting."

Still, the question haunted her, arguably playing a role in some of her most important life decisions. Not That Jewish is the story of how David Poss and Fritzie Granowitz married and, becoming Mr. and Mrs. Ross Davis, produced May Lee Davis, who morphed into Monica Piper, comedy club denizen, TV writer and producer, and all-around funny lady. (If that's not an American story, I don't know what is.) The Ross Davis tag was to facilitate his comedy lip-synching act, which if Variety is to be believed, was boffo stuff. Still, life on the road with a toddler proved too challenging, so they settled down in the Bronx. But the comedy bug bit their offspring, and, after a short career as a teacher, she hit the road herself, honing her skills in any gig she could find.

Piper clearly sees the funny side of everything. Discussing her fatal attraction to blond, blue-eyed men, she recalls the moment one such relationship went south: when watching Jeannie Berlin in The Heartbreak Kid, he nudged her and said, "That's you, honey." (You won't be surprised to hear that the marriage quickly went south.) She gives us a bit of her first comedy act, quoting from the wedding invitation sent out by her WASP in-laws: "Mr. and Mrs. Peter Baron, Jr., wish to announce the wedding of their son, Peter Baron the third, a tall, extremely handsome, brilliant, athletic graduate of Harvard Law School, soon to open a private practice in San Francisco, to...a tiny Jewish woman who smokes. Name furnished on request." A lifelong crush on Mickey Mantle turns into a situation in which, meeting him in her late thirties, he hits on her -- in front of her entire family.

Piper, who can ram home a punch line with the best of them, is, most of the time, a relaxed, affable presence, and she doesn't shy away from the sorrows in her life story, including the deaths of her parents and a lover lost to cocaine addiction. Much of the latter part of Not That Jewish follows her decision to adopt a baby -- from Tennessee -- and give him a religious Jewish upbringing, proving, as she admits, that her friend's comment from so many years ago has remained with her. Indeed, the darker the subject matter, the funnier Piper is; you'll have to take my word for it, but the passage in which she deals with a bout of breast cancer absolutely slays. When the doctor tells her that they've caught the disease early, she cracks, "How small? Small enough so I don't have to go on all those 10K walks?"

As opposed to so many of the solo comedy shows on New York stages these days, Not That Jewish is warm, funny, and grounded in plenty of gritty detail. The show had a lengthy run in Los Angeles, where Piper now lives, and where one imagines she honed her material to a fine edge. Mark Waldrop has directed with a light hand, and has also provided his star with a better-than-usual design. Michael Carnahan's set provides Piper with three separate playing areas and is backed by a collage of picture frames that serve as a screen for Zachary Borovay's evocative projections, which make use of Piper's family photographs to good effect. Julie Duro's lighting and Ian Wehrle's sound design, which includes audience murmurs, applause, ambient airport sounds, school bells, and other effects, are solid.

Among the other treats you can expect at Not That Jewish is a glossary of Yiddish terms, including the meaning of "farbissina punim" -- it's as bad as it sounds -- and an extended discussion of the Jewish ability to demean anything by putting a "shm," sound in front of it. When her son, called to dinner, replies, "Dinner, schminner," she knows she is home free. Even if you aren't that Jewish, you should find some solid laughs and honest sentiment. -- David Barbour

(1 November 2016)

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