NEW YORK — On Broadway, it’s the summer of Alex. Edelman, that is. As the headliner of “Just for Us,” Edelman confirms he’s one of the funniest minds of his generation. Or maybe any generation.
He attended a gathering a few years ago in a Queens apartment of a white nationalist group — not a laugh riot in itself, especially for a son of Boston Orthodox Jews. But for anyone who appreciates the application of witty, transgressive intelligence to patently anti-social phenomena, his account is something sublime.
Edelman goes, in essence, behind enemy lines, ostensibly out of curiosity about what a meeting of racists and antisemites entails. The resulting comic narrative could have been condescending. (How formidable, really, can such puny targets be?) This comedian, though, has the appetite of a cultural correspondent. Though Edelman tells us the other attendees do not consider a Semite to be White, he also acknowledges White privilege as allowing him to infiltrate their bigoted coffee klatch.
And although his insights and stories are hilarious, and we have no doubt as to our own disgust at what he encounters, there’s a humane and self-effacing core to “Just for Us.” We come away convinced that only someone with compassion and a love of mischief and an endearing screw loose could derive from this incident something meaningful, and entertaining.
Because, ultimately, “Just for Us” is a weirdly generous gesture; Edelman reveals how conflicted he is about the ruse he perpetrates. An ecumenical streak is evident, too, particularly in the uproarious story the comic tells about his family yielding one December to the prevailing American custom and staging a full-out Christmas for a grieving gentile friend. (His father, a devout Jew and professor at Harvard Medical School, emerges in Edelman’s telling as both lovable and a great source of material.)
We live in a moment when latent antisemitism — like other hateful isms — has been somehow given permission to express itself more openly. And it’s only natural that Broadway would be the locale for a response. As Eric Idle wrote so cheekily in “Monty Python’s Spamalot”: “So listen, Arthur darling, closely to this news: We won’t succeed on Broadway if we don’t have any Jews.” Jewish voices this past season were bountifully rewarded, as a Holocaust drama (“Leopoldstadt,” by Tom Stoppard) won the Tony for best new play, and “Parade,” the story of the lynching of a falsely accused Jew, Leo Frank, garnered the award for best revival of a musical.
The Tonys are principally a marketing tool, and still, these public endorsements have heft — just as it is impactful in the summer of 2023 that a millennial from a Modern Orthodox family can open up so winningly about his Jewishness. For all our ability to poke fun at our heritage, Jews remain keenly aware of our minority status, and certainly, like other minorities, about how we’re perceived collectively. So it’s refreshing to hear a performer handle these matters with such candor and integrity.
“Just for Us” — the “us” being an ironic touch — is not strictly a middle finger at antisemitism. It’s serious in an unserious way, a beneficiary of the stand-up tradition of Jewish comics with an edge, like Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. (I could have imagined an oversharing Edelman at a contentious Seder on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”) He is himself a big character, roaming the bare Hudson stage, flinging his limbs this way and that, expressive in a goofy-graceful way.
The nearly 1,000-seat theater, where the orchestra section and two balconies were filled at the performance I attended over the weekend, seemed to exhilarate Edelman. I’d seen the show in more intimate settings, and this incarnation, with a few anecdotes trimmed and some changes in inflection, was the most polished yet.
Alex Timbers, director of Broadway’s “Moulin Rouge!” and the soon-to-open “Here Lies Love,” was brought aboard as creative consultant after the premature death in April of director Adam Brace, who had shepherded the show to ever wider success. One wishes that Brace could have seen it in its grand new digs, because you can be sure that part of it is just for him.
Just for Us, written and performed by Alex Edelman. Directed by Adam Brace. Set, David Korins; lighting, Mike Baldassari; sound, Palmer Hefferan; creative consultant, Alex Timbers. Through Aug. 19 at Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., New York. justforusshow.com.