May 29, 2024

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Comic disguise with fanatics. You’ll want to know how it went.

New York – On Broadway, Alex’s Summer. Edelman, that is. As the main lead on “Just for Us,” Edelman asserts that he is one of the funniest minds of his generation. Or maybe any generation.

Thanks to numerous engagements — off Broadway, across the sea, on NPR, at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in D.C. — “Just for Us” has been chiseled to diamond-cut perfection. Officially opening Monday night at the Hudson Theatre, it’s an exhilarating 90-minute journey through Edelman’s visions and autobiography. And terrifying, wonderful, and pathetic in an event driven by Edelman, “Just for Us” lends itself to riveting subject matter.

He attended a gathering a few years ago in a Queens apartment of a white nationalist group—no laugh riot in and of itself, especially for the son of Orthodox Boston Jewry. But for anyone who appreciates the application of transgressive intelligentsia to overtly antisocial phenomena, his narrative is something sublime.

Edelman, in essence, goes behind enemy lines, ostensibly out of curiosity about what a meeting of racists and anti-Semites entails. The resulting comic narrative could be down-to-earth. (How cool are these bad targets really?) But this comedian has the appetite of a cultural reporter. Although Edelman tells us that the other attendees do not consider the Sami to be white, he also acknowledges the privilege of the white as allowing him to infiltrate their coffee supremacists.

And though his thoughts and stories are funny, and we’re in no doubt about our disgust at what he’s up against, there’s a humane, self-enveloping core to “Just for Us.” We come away convinced that a person with empathy, a love of mischief, and a loving screw can derive something useful and pleasant from this incident.

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Because, after all, “just for us” is a strangely gracious gesture; Edelman reveals how conflicted he is about the trick he’s perpetrating. There’s an ecumenical streak evident too, particularly in the tumultuous story the comedian tells about his family who, in December, succumb to prevailing American customs and stage a full-fledged Christmas for a grieving gentile friend. (His father, a religious Jew and professor at Harvard Medical School, appears in Edelman’s novel as a likable and great source of material.)

We live in a moment when latent anti-Semitism – like other hateful ideologies – has somehow been given permission to express itself more openly. And this is only normal Broadway would be the place to fight back. As Eric Idle shamelessly writes in “Monty Python’s Spamalot”: “So listen, dear Arthur, closely to this news: We would not make it on Broadway if we had no Jews.” Jewish voices were handsomely rewarded last season, with the Holocaust drama (“Leopoldstadt” by Tom Stoppard) winning a Tony Award for Best New Play, and “Parade,” the story of the execution of falsely accused Jew Leo Frank. Best Revival of a Musical Award.

The Tonys are primarily a marketing tool, however, and these public endorsements carry weight — just as it was poignant in the summer of 2023 for a millennial from a profitably Modern Orthodox family to open up about his Judaism. Despite our ability to poke fun at our heritage, Jews remain keenly aware of our status as a minority and certainly, like other minorities, how we are viewed collectively. So it’s refreshing to hear a musician approach these matters with such candor and integrity.

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“Just for us” — “we” a touch sarcastic — is not a middle finger in antisemitism. He’s serious in a not-so-serious way, drawing on the tradition of Jewish comics with an edge, like Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. (I could have imagined Edelman so involved in Seder’s controversial “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”) He himself is a big figure, strutting around on the naked Hudson stage, tossing his limbs this way and that, expressive in a graceful manner.

The 1,000-seat theatre, where the orchestra section and two balconies filled out for the show I attended over the weekend, seemed to be a delight to Edelman. I’ve seen the show in more intimate settings, and this incarnation, with a few tales told and some inflection changes, was the most polished yet.

Alex Timbers, director of “Moulin Rouge!” on Broadway and the soon-to-open “Here Lies Love” was brought on as a creative consultant following the director’s premature death in April. Adam Price, which led the show to greater success than ever. One wishes Brace had seen him at the grand new digs, because you can be sure that part of it is just for him.

Just for usWritten and performed by Alex Edelman. Directed by Adam Price. ST, David Corens; Lighting, Mike Baldassare; voiced by Palmer Hefferan; Creative consultant Alex Timbers. Through August 19th at the Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th Street, New York.