theater review

Dropping by the Local Nazis: Alex Edelman’s Just for Us

Alex Edelman in Just for Us.
Alex Edelman in Just for Us. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Alex Edelman starts his solo show by bringing its scale all the way down. He rambles about his preference for silly jokes over anything politically incisive, launching into a riff about a gorilla’s friendship with Robin Williams — “Even gorillas were like, ‘This guy is unbelievable’” — and contrasting Williams’s nearly universal audience with his own specific appeal, saying “my comedy barely works if you’re not a Jew from the Upper East Side.” Starting this way, he is perhaps letting air out of a very large balloon of expectations: This is, as most audience members will know going in, a show about a Jewish comedian who ended up going to a white-nationalist meeting. So why are we starting by imitating a zookeeper describing celebrity deaths in sign language? Because Edelman’s opening gambit reveals itself to be cannily constructed. He pulls the audience close with the self-deprecation and then destabilizes the dynamic. He turns things around and makes the show all about his need, as a comedian, to appease, which reacts nauseatingly when it comes in contact with Nazis. This is a crowd-pleasing, often hilarious show, with a time bomb labeled “Is it good that I am here making you laugh?” at its center.

Just for Us is built around the (true) story of Edelman’s receiving a bunch of antisemitic hate while working on a radio show, deciding to compile the haters’ names into a Twitter list (“Let them be on a list for once!”), and then discovering that one of them has sent an invitation to a meeting in Queens for those “curious about their #whiteness.” Edelman delights in the little absurdities of this experience, leaning back in his all-the-way-buttoned-up shirt and holding each detail up to the light for a few seconds’ wry riffing. Regarding the invitation, he points out that as an Ashkenazi Jew, he is curious about his whiteness. Once he arrives, he gets distracted by the fact that the meeting is being held in an apartment full of completed, framed jigsaw puzzles, and he runs around the stage, spreading his arms wide to describe the immense size of each. There’s implicit danger and tension in the setting, and when Edelman throws in the specifics — the members of the meeting even have a spread of “whites-only muffins” and orange juice — they don’t defuse it but instead make it odder and more sinister. By the time he’s started flirting with a woman named Chelsea (“You never know!”), you can feel the air pressure doubling in the theater.

On the stage of the Hudson Theatre, Edelman starts out with the classic wooden stool (at my performance, he did joke about people expecting to see Jessica Chastain sitting onstage instead) and then brings on two more as he describes the meeting. There’s one for Chelsea, and then one for the racist who’s most skeptical to his presence, who goes by “Cortez.” The staging, like the material itself, is both approachable (an effect magnified by David Korins’s set, which shrinks the theater down to manageable scale by adding a second proscenium arch behind Edelman) and stealthily unsettling. As Edelman zags from his main story into some of his many digressions, the stools stick around, acting as a thematic anchor. Those digressions are, like Edelman’s introduction, genially goofy, though tied to the show’s central obsessions with Jewishness, whiteness, and the places where they do and do not overlap. He grew up in an Orthodox family (“in this really racist part of Boston called Boston”) and describes disappointing his family by wanting to be more white. His anecdotes turn on the blurry line between Jewish and Waspy cultural identities — one’s about his brother competing in the Winter Olympics for Israel, another about the time his family celebrated Christmas when he was a kid. You see one comedy-of-manners narrative about assimilation, undercut by the presence of the stools onstage, occupied by characters who wouldn’t buy into any of this.

Edelman has honed his descriptions of the events of this meeting (which, as you can imagine, does not end well), but his jokes get broader when he digresses. He’s not just introducing a few tangents but shifting into a looser mode of comedy, with more easily available references. At one point, he has a line about explaining to his father why he doesn’t go by his full name, David Yosef Shimon ben Elazar Reuven Alexander Halevi Edelman, which leads to a Harry Potter joke that’s past its sell-by date. But like the stools, Edelman’s sometimes shaggy material is laid out intentionally. He’s a people-pleaser as a comedian, and he admits in the show that he’s holding back potentially alienating aspects of himself in order to win us over. To a much more extreme degree, he was also performing to ingratiate himself among the white nationalists.

The moment when Edelman gets around to saying what he’d hoped to accomplish by attending that meeting is where Just for Us accelerates and the time bomb goes off. Edelman considers the possibility of landing on a sentiment like “We’re all humans deep down,” which would be false and unsatisfying, and instead goes from self-deprecating to self-critical, examining his own impulses with the same attention he gave the weird apartment full of racists and puzzles. In this portion of the show, the question of aspiring to assimilate into whiteness gets supercharged, and I wanted him to get there sooner and stay there longer. I can also see how it depends on the ambling buildup. Look at me, Edelman is saying, doing anything to make as many people as possible like me, on Broadway, even! To that end, Edelman’s performance ends on a heroic gesture, guaranteed to trigger huge applause, though the closer also read, to me, as intentionally ambivalent. It’s a nifty, thorny trick: Spend a show teaching an audience to be suspicious of easy comforts, and then leave them with one.

Genre-wise, Just for Us lies within the growing niche of solo performance that falls somewhere between storytelling and stand-up, in the vein of Mike Birbiglia’s Broadway ventures (Birbiglia is also a producer on Just for Us). If you want a survey of the state of that genre, you should follow Edelman’s performance downtown at Liz Kingsman’s One Woman Show. There, Kingsman, an Australian-born comic who’s made a career in Britain, sends up the genre from the outside in, taking specific aim at one-woman shows about sex-crazed “relatable” women in the vein of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, as similarly parodied in Kate Berlant’s Kate. Kingsman plays a version of herself who’s staging an absurd monologue called Wildfowl about a girl who works in marketing for bird conservation, written as a gambit to become a celebrity fast (it’s nearly July, she explains, and they haven’t decided yet which women will be famous this year). She slips in and out of that monologue, fretting about whether television executives will like what she’s making and bristling at her AV team for messing up her big break.

One Woman Show is much more conceptual than Just for Us, but they both orbit around self-conscious explorations about just what their authors intend with their comedy and why. They also shared a director, Adam Brace, who died at 43 in May and was heavily involved in both shows’ years of development. Brace, it’s clear, pushed both Edelman and Kingsman to keep turning the screws of their premises, to the point where both shows question their own structure: in Edelman’s case what it means to please, in Kingsman’s what it means to try to fit in a box. Whereas Edelman moves by adjusting an invisible dial, shrinking or enlarging the scope of his comedy, Kingsman adds and subtracts layers of commentary, like putting on or taking off layers of clothing (and the show’s best joke involves that specific gesture). She’s a nakedly ambitious version of herself playing a ditz who will then be critiqued by, for instance, a sane Australian co-worker who happens to say things that sound a lot like Kingsman’s own point of view.

Those layers are difficult to describe, but Kingsman makes it all easy with a light-footed performance and a delight in her own sedimentary setup. Wildfowl is a satire of the way that women fashion their stories into a specific mold for commercial success, but Kingsman makes her point through absurdity more than bitterness. She describes, for instance, a date in a rotating cocktail bar where drinks keep falling to the floor because it’s spinning vertically. In those scenarios, you can see Kingsman constructing a tunnel out of the trap of relatability. Let’s admit this whole edifice is very silly, she’s saying, so we can start to move on.

Just for Us is at the Hudson Theatre through August 19.

One Woman Show is at the Greenwich House Theatre through August 11.

Dropping by the Local Nazis: Alex Edelman’s Just for Us