The Who and What of Alex Edelman’s ‘Just For Us’

Clearly, the last thing this comedian was interested in was a ponderous or pedantic exploration of antisemitism. The primary purpose is to entertain audiences and, above all, make them laugh.

Matthew Murphy
Alex Edelman in 'Just For Us.' Matthew Murphy

The evening before Alex Edelman’s one-man show, “Just For Us,” was set to open on Broadway, the comedian was interviewed by a longtime friend, Josh Groban, the twice Tony Award-nominated singer and actor, at the 92nd Street Y. Asked to explain his process for putting together the solo pieces he has juggled with a standup career and writing for British radio, Mr. Edelman detailed a formula composed of four elements, which he identified as “who you are, who they are, what happened, and what’s changed.”

Regarding the first element, Mr. Edelman is a 34-year-old American who, before spending some creatively fruitful time abroad, was raised in a religious Jewish household and attended a yeshiva. He still worries, as he put it to Mr. Groban quite poignantly, “whether I present to the world a person who is less Jewish than I feel.”

The “who they are” in “Just For Us,” which was nurtured at festivals at Melbourne and Edinburgh and arrives at the Hudson Theatre following acclaimed runs at London and off-Broadway, is a group of white nationalists whom Mr. Edelman happened to join on a winter night in 2017 at Astoria, Queens, at a meeting “for those curious about your #whiteness,” as it was advertised online. As he explains in the show, he had come into contact with the organizer after compiling a Twitter list of antisemites, some of whom had trolled him previously.

The “what happened” and “what’s changed” are traced over a briskly funny and surprisingly uplifting 75 minutes. At the Y, Mr. Edelman noted that “Just For Us” was informed by his fascination with “the intersection of Jews and whiteness—what that means and should mean.” The questions raised by this topic, he added, went “hand in hand with conversations about victimhood and identity” that have increasingly proliferated on media of all stripes and, it seems, social interaction on every level.  

Clearly, though, the last thing this comedian was interested in was a ponderous or pedantic exploration of antisemitism. As he stressed to Mr. Groban (an adroit and charming interviewer, by the way) several times, the primary purpose of “Just For Us” is to entertain audiences and, above all, make them laugh; at a recent preview, the show was a resounding success on those terms.

That’s no small achievement, given not only the sobering subject matter but that Mr. Edelman’s director and his collaborator of more than a decade, Adam Brace, died only weeks before Broadway performances commenced, at 43, after suffering a stroke. (The celebrated director Alex Timbers has since signed on as creative consultant.) Although there have been tweaks since the off-Broadway run — most involving “the parts of the show that aren’t jokes,” as Mr. Edelman noted at the Y — the essentials remain, as does Mr. Edelman’s tone, which might best be described as aggressively irreverent. 

“Sometimes people can tell that I’m Jewish because of my name, or my face, or anything about my personality,” Mr. Edelman quips at one point in the show. He recalls how while growing up, “in this really racist part of Boston called Boston,” he discovered there was “a hierarchy of whiteness,” in which various ethnic groups ranked beneath “the Wasps … the any country club you want white. The ‘I can’t read but I got into Harvard.’”

The particular bigotry that has been targeted at Jews over millennia may not be analyzed in “Just For Us,” but it’s implicit in Mr. Edelman’s recollection of that night at Queens, “the most diverse borough of the most diverse city in the world,” as Mr. Edelman notes, with his distinctly moist irony. The leader of the white supremacists immediately regards him with suspicion, and contempt; when he confesses to his true identity, the fallout is at once appalling and hilarious.

Mr. Edelman emerges from the ordeal feeling pity for the racists, who, not surprisingly, express as much distaste for Meghan Markle and progressive initiatives in education as they eventually do for their interloper. The strain of hatred documented in “Just For Us” is, notably, associated with the far right; there is a passing reference, toward the end, to growing antisemitism on the opposite pole, but I suspect a discussion of that trend would be considered a riskier endeavor, even within a community that counts so many Jews among its artists, fans, and backers.

The funniest and most touching part of “Just For Us” involves Mr. Edelman’s childhood memory of the time his parents consented to observe Christmas, out of sympathy for a bereaved, lonely Christian neighbor. Admittedly, the segment held personal resonance for me, as a secular Jew whose more loosely observant mom and dad acknowledged the holiday but refused to get a tree — until I married a lapsed Catholic, at which point my mother bought an enormous one, which she now lovingly adorns each year, always placing a star of David on top.

It is indeed sad that some can’t enjoy the connections that can be forged through differences — or, as “Just For Us” reminds us repeatedly, through laughter.

The New York Sun

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