Alex Edelman’s witty Broadway monologue takes its eye off the target
Alex Edelman’s Just For Us is a series of interlocking puzzles, digressions, and hierarchies, and it’s often very funny. Edelman’s monologue begins in 2018, months after he’d received a flood of anti-Semitic messages on Twitter. He decided to follow his anti-fan base and one night received an invitation to an event in Queens to discuss “#whiteness.” Edelman revels in the prospect of a racist subgroup in Queens, of all places, easily the most diverse borough in the most diverse city on Earth. An estimated 138 languages are alive in Queens. They speak the language of hate in an apartment living room replete with pastries and a remarkable collection of enormous jigsaw puzzles. A sign in Comic Sans directs him to the third-floor lair.
This setup sounds like the beginning of a ponderous disquisition on the nature of evil. Instead, Edelman views the situation as another source of hilarity.
(A digression of my own: The thousand plus years of Jewish existence is an exercise in a rueful sort of humor as a defense against the absurd. A classic goes like this: a Nazi confronts an aged Jew and shakes his finger at him, shouting “All the world’s problems are because of the Jews!” The old man adds, “And the bicycle riders.” The Nazi is confused. “Why the bicycle riders?” The old man answers, “Why the Jews?”)
Just For Us unfolds in a series of vignettes, from his childhood in Boston, where the hierarchy of whiteness place Jews near the bottom, with Mayflower-monied Brahmins at the top. Edelman admits his effort to move closer to the top involved shaving down his name from Dovid to a more manageable Alex. He uses this name to introduce himself at the meeting, where he meets a pretty attendee named Chelsea (Edelman imagines her played by Anne Hathaway in the Hallmark movie version of their meet-hate) and Alex is the name he uses to navigate through the world of comedy. To his colleagues, Edelman is the most Jewish Jew they’ve ever met. His family views him as Lady Gaga. He went to yeshiva but performs on Shabbat, and, as he reminded his matinee audience, they’re also breaking the rules.
Edelman circles around the meeting with stories from his childhood and other comic tangents, such as a kosher Christmas they hosted one year, to insights into his own joke-writing process. He’s likeable and charming, even to his racist hosts, who appreciate his explanation about why Twitter keeps suppressing their content. One of the attendees, with the nom de guerre Cortez, eyes Edelman suspiciously. Edelman eyes them back with a pitying type of empathy, seeing the 17 at the meeting as life’s losers.
They are obsessed with the recent royal wedding–Edelman had forgotten that the bride is bi-racial, but the Queens clan didn’t. One older woman describes the bride using the N-word. To Edelman’s shock, Chelsea objects to the word, and Edelman is amazed to discover “There’s a hierarchy among racists!” They spend time nodding, complaining, and eating muffins, a small and ridiculous cell of fools. Cortez, whose probing questions about Edelman’s grandparents elicit the truth, soon outs the guest. He leaves the meeting and feels relieved to escape unharmed.
Edelman is onstage to amuse, so he doesn’t have an answer about why this meeting happened, why meetings like this keep happening, or why the blame always circles back to the Jews and not the bicycle riders. He’s here to tell a story, to keep us all laughing at the absurd and thinking about our own notions about identity. How do we see ourselves and how do others see us? How did Cortez know Edelman was Dovid, even when he has tried so hard to be an Alex? Those parts of the show were delightful, and there are few pleasures like hearing a wonderful story.
But there are a few nagging puzzle pieces in Just For Us. A troubling note is how Edelman addresses his own place in the Jewish hierarchy, both to the Jews and non-Jews in the audience. While he musters up empathy for the members of the hate group, Edelman has a certain level of contempt for his fellow Jews. He spends several minutes–a lot of time in a 90-minute monologue–teasing his brother AJ, an Olympic athlete who happens to play for Israel. And the sibling rivalry goes a little too far.
Edelman mocks a yeshiva acquaintance who hesitates to vaccinate his baby, and he is far too delighted with his personal critique of how a Kushner walks to the bima to read from the Torah at the shul they both attend. Edelman signals to the audience that he’s the right kind of Jew – the kind who questions Israel, the kind who disassociates himself from a childhood friend whose name can’t appear in English “because there’s no letter for phlegm,” and the kind of Jew brave enough to condemn a Jew with incorrect political views. He makes an effort to signal to the audience that he is the acceptable kind of progressive, culturally modern Jew. It’s possible that Edelman has forgotten that to the audience back in Queens, none of that actually matters.