New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Old Jews Telling Jokes"
Westside Theatre, Manhattan

"A Modest Suggestion"
Studio Theatre on Theatre Row, Manhattan

Two shows have just surfaced off-Broadway, offering striking contrasts in style, delivery, mood. But the underlying message is the same—namely, that we Jews use humor to meet adversity. This has long been a survival tool in Europe. For two thousand years, anti-Semitism was part of the package. But Jewish humor—sometimes wry, sometimes bitter, sometimes resigned—yet always in reserve, lay ready to be tapped.

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” a 90-minute revue at the Westside Theatre, pays tribute to this history by skillfully interweaving a familiar bundle of one-liners, culled from the days of Catskill comics. The legacy of European survival techniques had evolved into Borsht Belt humor. Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles come to mind. Typical, as we recall, is this one-liner. Three women get together in Miami, and the conversation follows: “Oy…Oy!...Oy, Gevalt!!...I thought we weren’t going to talk about the children.”

Created by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent and under the able direction of Marc Bruni, "Old Jews is a slick easy-to-take show. The jokes are time-worn—at least most of them. But that is just the point. It’s a chance to honor our earlier days in this country, corny though it is. Five able performers move smoothly on and off stage, offering songs and commentaries mixing with the jokes. (A singing highlight is “I’m spending Hanukah in Santa Monica.”) The jokes (often coarse, ribald, scatological) are organized into categories — doctors, sex, marriage, business, money, assimilaton, religion. Vintage players are Marilyn Sokol, Todd Susman, Lenny Wolpe, with youngsters Bill Army and Audrey Lynn Weston. It is a series of staccato, fast-paced scenes, with the stage quickly reset each time.

Audiences attending this show (probably mostly Jewish) responded with warm support—applauding enthusiastically at show’s end. Our only disappointment was that the show offered no fresh ideas or unexpected twists. It’s all very predictable. But that’s the idea. The show “is what it is,” as one viewer commented on leaving the theater.

In contrast is “A Modest Suggestion,” (now on Theatre Row at the Studio Theatre). This provocative satire (written by Israeli playwright Ken Kaissar) offers startlingly unexpected moves at every line. It poses the outrageous question—should we kill all the Jews? It is absurdist theater in the extreme (or perhaps not absurdist, when one considers recent Jewish history). Nonetheless, it is hard to laugh at this satire, which cuts too close to the bone.

Four men are seated around a boardroom table. Ostensibly they are corporate executives, judging by their well-tailored dark suits, neat shirts and ties. The agenda is on the table. They have already voted on earlier items, such as global warming and airport security. Should security devices reveal one’s “private parts”? Should they ban pizza in public school cafeterias?

Now they are prepared to decide whether they should kill all the Jews. That the four men are idiots does not prevent them from going through corporate procedures, complete with the right lingo. They ponder the question. What would we gain? What are the cost benefits? Will this genocide make them feel good? But how do they find and identify Jews? What are the traits of a Jew? If a man eats bacon, can he be Jewish? Finally they decide to do one test case—that is, kill one Jew (if he can be identified). They bring in a young man, bound and gagged, and proceed to question him. Does he eat bagel and lox? Does he celebrate Christmas? Since he proves to be a non-practicing Jew, or perhaps a non-Jew, they are thrown into confusion. Ultimately, they kidnap an Orthodox Jew, with much clearer results.

Cast members—corporate execs Jeff Auer, Bob Greenberg, Russell Jordan, Jonathan Marball--are right on target. And though Ethan Hova and Robert W. Smith turn in appealing performances as captive Jews, they are rather miscast. Smith—blue-eyed and fair-skinned—looks more like an Amish farmer than an Orthodox Jew, while the swarthy Hova seems more a middle-Easterner than an all-American non-observant Jew.

The denouement, not to be revealed here, is unexpected and confusing, tumbling downward at the close. One would hope that Kaissar would rework the ending.

Nonetheless, under Walter Hoffman’s firm direction, the play captivates, forcing viewers to examine that endless question: what is a Jew?

--Irene Backalenick
May 23, 2012

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