When I first saw Yeshiva-educated stand-up comic Alex Edelman’s solo show about his attendance at a meeting of white supremacist antisemites, it didn’t occur to me to compare him to Daniel in the Lion’s Den. I was mostly baffled: Why did he go in the first place?
Eighteen months later, with “Just for Us” opening tonight on Broadway, Edelman now explicitly acknowledges in the show that he gets asked that question all the time, and near the end of the 80 minutes, he answers the question.
But he didn’t need to. Although the show is full of the same jokes and funny stories as it was Off-Broadway, I understand it differently now, as something more layered than just a comic entertainment.
Since the Off-Broadway debut of his show in December, 2021, the issue of antisemitism has taken center stage on Broadway – “Leopoldstadt” won the Tony Award for best play, and Parade won the Tony Award for best musical revival. Two plays that debuted Off-Broadway shortly after “Just For Us” have been announced for Broadway runs later this season – “Harmony,” opening in November, “Prayer for the French Republic,” opening in January.
“Just For Us” is the only one of these shows that takes place in the current era.
Exactly a week before I saw “Just for Us” on Broadway, Robert Bowers was found guilty of murdering 11 Jews who had been praying at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. In a report in April, the Anti Defamation League found that the number of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. increased by more than 35 percent in a year, from 2,721 in 2021 to 3,697 in 2022. “Antisemitic and white supremacist propaganda in the U.S. also hit new levels” (PBS News Hour)
Edelman, whose comedy has been in the mold of Mike Birbiglia (one of the producers of the show) – engaging personal stories and odd comic riffs — got a blast of this antisemitic wave after he did a radio hour on the BBC, and a listener Tweeted his upset that he had listened to a Jew. Edelman Tweeted back at him, which provoked many other antisemites to join the fray. The comic put them all on a Twitter list that he entitled Jewish National Fund Contributors.
It was in glancing at his list that he noticed a Tweet inviting people to go to an address in Astoria, Queens the following night “If you’re curious about your #whiteness.”
It wasn’t a Nazi bar, as he had expected. It was just somebody’s apartment, some dozen people milling about, including an older woman working on an enormous jigsaw puzzle, and an attractive young woman. “I saw the girl and I thought to myself, with no irony, ‘You never know.’”
After a while, “I felt a little bad for them. First of all, it’s really difficult to hate people up close. And these people are not life’s winners. … Do you know how hard it must be to be a racist in Queens, the most diverse borough of the most diverse city in the world?
Charming, likeable, humorously self-effacing, Edelman is meticulous in detailing the oddness and incongruity of his encounter, and mining the comedy of it. But he is also continuing an age-old Jewish tradition –employing humor as a shield, but also as a weapon, against the massive irrational hatred.
In what initially seemed comic digressions, Edelman also explores some heady issues – the limits of empathy, the dangers of social media, the dilemma of identity. He crafts a personal story that starts to feel like a portrait of the Jew in America. Excuse the grandiosity of that observation; he would never make such a claim. He is just telling us about his modern Orthodox family and himself, although some startling candor (if not fanciful) peeks through the riffs:
“If I was raised secular in a cool place like New York or Los Angeles, I think I’d consider myself bisexual. But because I was raised religious in a repressed place like Boston, I consider myself straight with some secrets.”
Broadway’s Hudson Theater is more than five times larger than the Cherry Lane, where the show made its Off-Broadway debut after years of touring some version of it. Edelman tries to fill the vast, largely empty stage (just three stools) with a near-constant movement, bopping left and right, upstage and downstage on bright white sneakers; in the brief moments when his legs stand still, or actually sits, his arms flail expressively.
Some of his hand movements, actually, are clues to the seriousness with which he takes his craft. He begins “Just for Us” with a story about Koko the gorilla who knew sign language and befriended Robin Willliams – a fertile source for both surreal humor and wonderful insight. But in imagining the scene when the zookeeper told Koko that Williams had died, his signs for Koko are impressively precise. It turns out that, to prepare for his brief impersonation of the signing gorilla, during the pandemic he took sign language lessons over Zoom.
Just For Us
Hudson Theater through August 19
Running time: About 80 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $44 to $203
Written and performed by Alex Edelman
Directed by Adam Brace
Scenic Design by David Korins; Lighting Design by Mike Baldassari; Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan