It may be too much to ask a human hummingbird like Alex Edelman to try to stick to the subject. In “Just for Us,” his three-jokes-per-minute one-man show, he zooms from punchline to punchline almost as fast as he caroms around the stage of the Hudson Theater. (At 34, he’s part of what he calls the overmedicated ADHD generation.) If you haven’t read about his act coming to Broadway, you might assume from his introduction — in which he describes his usual style as “benign silliness” and says this “isn’t Ibsen” — that you are in for a cheerful evening of laughs.
And even though he’s telling a story about white supremacy, you are.
That’s the glory and also the slight hitch of “Just for Us,” which opened on Monday after runs in London, Edinburgh, Washington and Off Broadway. No, it’s not Ibsen, a dramatist rarely noted for zingy one-liners. But it’s not silliness either. Despite its rabbi-on-Ritalin aesthetic, and its desperation to be liked at all costs, the show is so thoughtful and high-minded it comes with a mission statement. Edelman wants to open a conversation about the place of Jews on the “spectrum of whiteness,” he recently told my colleague Jason Zinoman, “without having a conversation about victimhood.”
He’s well placed to draw the distinction. Growing up a “proudly and emphatically” Orthodox Jew in “this really racist part of Boston called Boston,” he clocked the wariness between races but also within them. And though he admits to experiencing “quite a bit of white privilege,” he was so alienated from mainstream culture that he didn’t know what Christmas was until his mother observed it one year when a gentile friend was in mourning.
Oy, the tsouris it caused at his yeshiva!
Hilarious as the ensuing story is, you have the feeling that “Just for Us” might have been little more than a millennial update on Jackie Mason-style Jewish humor were it not for that millennial accelerant, social media. “An avalanche of antisemitism” on Twitter, in response to some comments he’d posted, supercharged Edelman’s thinking about identity-based hatred and led him, one evening in 2017, to infiltrate a white supremacist get-together in Queens.
“A Jew walks into a bar,” the joke might start, though it wasn’t a bar, as Edelman had expected, but a private apartment. There he took a chair among 16 strangers with predictably pan-bigoted opinions. By marrying Prince Harry, Meghan Markle would be “degrading” one of Europe’s oldest families. Diversity initiatives constitute “a plan to slowly genocide white people.” Jews, the root of the weed of that genocide, “are sneaky and everywhere.”
That we rarely feel the horror or even the unpleasantness of Edelman’s encounter is partly deliberate; he portions his spinach with plenty of candied yams. Defanging the “sneaky and everywhere” comment, he admits that he was in no position, sitting there incognito, to disprove the point. Then he wheels sharply into a seemingly unrelated 10-minute story about vaccine denialists. Likewise, the racist disparagement of Meghan Markle is immediately interrupted by a bit about Harry snorting cocaine through a rolled-up “picture of his grandmother.”
The indirection is not purposeless; Edelman is building the service roads to his main argument. But that argument surfaces far less than the jokes do, taking up only about 35 minutes of the 85-minute show — a proportion that betrays its origins in stand-up. The set, by David Korins, betrays those origins too, consisting of little more than a miniature proscenium to rescale expectations and a black stool straight from your local Komedy Korner.
The real giveaway, though, is the compulsive ingratiation. Though it produces much laughter, including too many giggles from the comic himself, the doggy overeagerness could stand to be toned down, and probably would have been if Edelman’s longtime director, Adam Brace, had been able to complete his work on the production. (He died in March, at 43, after a stroke.) Alex Timbers, credited as the creative consultant, helped guide the show to Broadway, handsomely.
And yet, the ingratiation, however distracting, is also strategic. The show wouldn’t work without its contrast between storytelling and joke plugging. By going “dumb and small” about such a serious subject — Edelman describes the arrangement of chairs at the meeting as an “antisemicircle” — he lays the groundwork for a denouement in which he turns the critique on himself as he turns to the bigger issues at hand.
For as he promised, “Just for Us” is not about Jewish victimhood, or anyone’s victimhood, except perhaps that of the aggrieved supremacists, who are too puny and whiny to constitute a real threat. He calls them Nerf Nazis. Nor is “Just for Us” (which is how the supremacists ultimately describe their territory) really about the spectrum of whiteness. What’s at stake instead is the idea of empathy, a central value in Edelman’s vision of Judaism. How far does it extend? Is it unconditional? Do even the hateful deserve it? And, especially relevant to Edelman in this case: Is it vitiated by bad motives?
Because, check it out, there’s a cute woman at the meeting who seems to be into him. Could he be the guy who “fixes” her? Who fixes the whole group? They too have been ingratiated: “I came as an observer,” he says. “I might leave as, like, the youth outreach officer.”
This is moral vanity, Edelman admits: a professional charmer’s eagerness to flatter other people’s self-regard as a way of buttressing his own. That’s what makes “Just for Us” more than a Catskills club act washed ashore on Broadway like Mason’s. For all the dumb jokes (but yes, I laughed at every one) it winds up as a critique of both dumbness and jokes.
If that’s a highly indirect route to insight, it’s a highly effective one too, taking us through the process by which a Jew, or anyone, may learn once again that the cost of being liked at all costs is too high.
Just for Us
Through Aug. 19 at the Hudson Theater, Manhattan; justforusshow.com. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.