Alex Edelman’s “Just for Us,” Mark Taper Forum, Nov. 10 – 26, 2023
Nov. 14, 2023 | By Bruce R. Feldman
In Brief: After the Mark Taper hastily cancelled its current season, the lights are back on, for two weeks at least, as Alex Edelman reprises his hit Off-Broadway solo show in Los Angeles. It’s about antisemitism, and it’s funny. Two things can be true at the same time.
A few thoughts came to mind as I watched comedian Alex Edelman perform. One had to do with the Holocaust film Life is Beautiful. Another with Woody Allen.
But first, a brief introduction to Just for Us.
The show is an amusing extended monologue that explores Jewish identity, growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home, and the consequences of antisemitism. It does this with penetrating humor that makes you both smile and ponder.
It’s a laughing-on-the-outside-crying-on-the-inside approach to loaded questions, such as what does it mean to be Jewish today? and why do many people hate Jews?
These are issues that are both timely and, sad to say, eternal.
The main account in the 90-minute presentation is about Edelman’s decision to go to a meeting of White Supremacists in Queens. He tells us that he wanted to know firsthand what people would say about Jews if they did not face censure.
Edelman is tall, wiry, and not overbearing physically. Props to the guy for bravery.
The comedian unpacks the peculiarities of each of the characters he encountered, concluding that maybe they really aren’t so bad as we all believe, that they are just confused and misguided, and that it’s possible to feel a bit of empathy for them.
Edelman is what we used to call a standup comedian. Today he’s a social observer who uses sharp humor to make sensitive subjects palatable to audiences.
Whether you believe this is a good idea or not is a legitimate question. The welcoming audience at the Taper on opening night opted for the former view.
And this is where Life is Beautiful comes into the conversation. A big 1997 hit and an Oscar winner, it received keen censure from a few critics – Mel Brooks, among others – who objected to its use of gentle comedy to soften, some said trivialize, Holocaust horrors.
Not everyone is going to approve of Edelman’s approach to his subject either. I suspect it’s a function of age. The younger you are, the more you agree with what he is doing here. The older you are, the opposite.
Edelman’s routine has its comedic highpoints, especially the crazy incident of the year his family celebrated Christmas at home and his Orthodox father’s hilarious reaction to it.
As a performer, Edelman is agitated, frenetic, hyped up. He bounces around the stage maniacally. In this he has more in common with an animated solo performer like John Leguizamo than with the laid-back manner of, say, Dave Chappelle.
I mention those two because I think that both of those artists are the gold standard of social commentary through humor. Edelman is indeed very good, though a notch or two below them.
And as for Woody Allen, Edelman’s shtick reminded me of Allen’s standup days back in the 1960s, in particular his routine about shooting a moose in the woods. If you are familiar with it, then you will know why I mention it. If not, here it is:
Alex Edelman in Just for Us is playing now through the end of Thanksgiving week.
Alex Edelman's "Just for Us," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org