fri 03/02/2023

Alex Edelman, Menier Chocolate Factory review - London run for unmissable off-Broadway hit | reviews, news & interviews

Alex Edelman, Menier Chocolate Factory review - London run for unmissable off-Broadway hit

Alex Edelman, Menier Chocolate Factory review - London run for unmissable off-Broadway hit

How a Jewish standup found the funny side of a roomful of white nationalists

Alex Edelman's set is brilliantly constructed and performedAlastair Muir

At one point in this brilliantly constructed and performed set, Alex Edelman ponders on the catchment area for his comedy and figures it might be the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Nah: this is comedy that can talk to anybody with a brain. 

Edelman is not from New York, though he studied English at NYU and lives a bicoastal life there and in LA. He grew up in Brookline, Boston, the son of a leading heart specialist; his brother AJ represented Israel at the Winter Olympics in South Korea. (There’s a hilarious section on that unlikely event — how could there not be?) They are a successful professional Orthodox Jewish family, one step down from the ultimate white people locally, the Wasps. But he considers himself white.

Alex Edelman is not his given name, though; or rather it isn’t his full name, which he reels off with echt Hebrew pronunciation. It‘s a string of names longer than a member of the royal family’s, starting with Dovid, where “Alex” pops up just over halfway through and “Edelman” finally arrives on the end. Talking about the difficulty non-Jewish people have with this name, he then solemnly delivers one of my favourite lines in the show: “There is no English letter for phlegm.” 

Edelman’s schtick, he claims, is “dumb and small” jokes, which sounds a lot like Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy about nothing. But though Edelman has the swagger and cheekiness of live Seinfeld, his targets here are broader. The genesis of Just For Us was a conversation with fellow stand-up Bridget Christie, who he says nudged him towards writing something about “the world as it is now”. Handily, he had just such a subject in the can, involving a journey to Queens, NYC, 16 white supremacists and a 12,000-piece jigsaw. The set that has emerged is his journey into the heart of darkness, with free Nazi muffins.

What Edelman does with this material is jaw-droppingly impressive. He starts and ends it with the story of Koko the gorilla, who mastered sign language and befriended Robin Williams. In between he demonstrates he is in the line of barnstorming live comedy aced by Williams and Billy Connolly — high-octane storytelling with spot-on physical clowning and vocal contortions, where the anecdotes are little gems of irony, careful observation and zinger-filled writing. 

Especially treasurable are the sections about his family, and the time in his early childhood when they staged a family Christmas for a lonely Gentile widow, an act that was not without its repercussions when their rabbi found out about it. Edelman’s voice can veer between silly childish noises to a volume turned up to 11, but he never appears brash or “loud”. There is a genuine warmth at the heart of his material, and of his family, apparently. 

This knack for empathy is one reason why he ended up in a roomful of Nazis in Queens. His odyssey began with a misguided attempt to reach out to an anti-semitic Tweeter, which in turn caused a pile-on of even worse antisemites. Edelman got his revenge by creating a Twitter-list of the trolls that was more a carefully designed explosive device: all the anti-semitic tweeters received standard notifications that they were now on the “Jewish National Fund Contributions List”. But then, out of this morass, one sent him an email inviting anybody “concerned about their whiteness” to attend the meeting in Queens. 

You sense that the kid who never stopped asking questions and jokes that he is from the overmedicated ADHD generation has grown up to be a thoughtful and curious adult who in some way wanted to confront his white supremacist antagonists and check them out, and not just for comedy purposes. There is something in his makeup that moved him to find out whether he had a “duty as a Jew to help these people”, by befriending and beguiling them. Oy gevalt, he even feels sorry for them as they are clearly life’s losers and only “pretend Nazis”. 

It’s funnier than heck, each grim irony rammed home by Edelman, not least about his own behaviour, sitting silent for a whole hour, while fancying a pretty anti-Semite called Chelsea and nodding along with the others. There’s so much kvetching – about Prince Harry marrying a woman of mixed race, about the removal of “white” statues in the US, about the slo-mo genocide of the white race – that he almost feels at home. 

But there is a big real-world issue at play here. How far should we, and Jews in particular, go towards compromising with extremists?  Not just terrorists but the far right, the anti-vaxers and conspiracy theorists? Will they take on board opposing views at all? Edelman gets his answer  –and his revenge, as he reveals in a perfect exit line. He is bound to be playing much bigger venues before long, so be sure not to miss the chance of seeing him in the Menier’s more intimate space.

The set is Edelman's journey into the heart of darkness, with free Nazi muffins

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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