He attended a meeting a few years ago in a Queens apartment of a white nationalist group — not a laugh riot, especially for the son of Boston Orthodox Jews. But for anyone who appreciates the application of witty, out-of-bounds wit to overtly anti-social phenomena, his account is classic.
Edelman, in essence, goes after the enemy, appearing curious about what the intersection of racists and anti-Semitism might entail. The resulting comedy can be depressing. (Really, how strong are such trivial goals?) This comedian has the appetite of a culture reporter. Although Edelman tells us that other participants don’t consider a Semite white, he acknowledges white privilege, which he allows to seep into their bigoted coffee klatsch.
While his insights and stories are hilarious, and we have no doubts about our distaste for meeting him, “For Us” has an underlying humanity and selfishness. We are sure that only someone with compassion, a love of mischief and a lovable screwball can get something meaningful and entertaining out of this incident.
Because, ultimately, “Just for Us” is a weirdly generous gesture; Edelman reveals how conflicted he is about the maneuvering he’s doing. An ecumenical streak is evident, especially as the comic tells of his family bending one December to prevailing American custom and hosting a full-on Christmas for a grieving Gentile friend. (His father, a devout Jew and professor at Harvard Medical School, emerges as Edelman’s favorite and best source of material.)
We live in a moment where latent anti-Semitism – like other hateful religions – is somehow allowed to manifest itself openly. And it’s natural Broadway will be the place for an answer. As Eric Idle so cheekily wrote in “Monty Python’s Spamalot”: “Arthur dear, listen carefully to this message: If we don’t have Jews we won’t succeed on Broadway.” There were plenty of rewards for Jewish voices last season, with a Holocaust drama (Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt”) winning a Tony for best new play, and “The March,” the story of Leo Frank, a falsely accused Jew, being killed. Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
The Tonys are mainly a marketing tool, and yet, these public endorsements are high – just as impactful in the summer of 2023, when a millionaire from a Modern Orthodox family can open up about his Jewishness in a very successful way. For all their ability to mock our heritage, Jews are acutely aware of our minority status, and certainly, like any other minority, of how we are collectively perceived. So, it’s refreshing to hear an actor deal with these things with such honesty and integrity.
“Just for us” — “for us” being a touch ironic — is definitely not a middle finger to anti-Semitism. It’s serious in a non-serious way, a beneficiary of the stand-up tradition of Jewish comics with an edge like Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. (I could have imagined Edelman sharing more in the controversial Seder of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”) He’s a big character himself, roaming the empty Hudson stage, flailing his limbs this way and that, expressing himself in a goofy-cool way.
The nearly 1,000-seat theater, which filled the orchestra section and two balconies at the performance I attended over the weekend, thrilled Edelman. I’ve seen the show in much more intimate settings, and this incarnation, with some events trimmed and a few tweaks, is even more polished.
Alex Timbers, Broadway’s “Moulin Rouge!” and the soon-to-open “Here Lies Love,” brought on as a creative consultant after the director’s untimely death in April. Adam Brace, who shepherded the show to even wider success. One wishes Brace had seen it in its new digs, because you can be sure that part of it was just for him.
Just for us, written and performed by Alex Edelman. Directed by Adam Brace. Set, David Korins; Lighting, Mike Baldasari; Sound, Palmer Hefferan; Creative consultant, Alex Timbers. Through Aug. 19 at Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., New York. justforusshow.com.