Edelman’s ‘Just for Us’ is actually for everybody
By Rich Fahey
BOSTON – A solo show is a bit like performing naked. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no one else to blame if things go off the rails.
Naked or clothed, writer/comic Alex Edelman is unafraid. Here I am, world, he says: Take me or leave me. The good news is they are buying what he is selling.
His Orthodox Jewish upbringing, his family, and a spur-of-the-moment visit to a hostile environment are at the center of his work “Just for Us,” now at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through April 23. Another show at the Emerson Colonial Theatre has also been added on Saturday, May 20.
Edelman is a superb storyteller, with a sense of timing and pace and the ability to summon a wide range of characters at a moment’s notice. He’s also in constant motion throughout, and that movement helps keep the audience fully engaged during the 80-minute piece performed at a breakneck pace.
As in a sprint race, in a solo show the start is everything. So Edelman gets off to a flying start with a story about Koko, the gorilla who learned sign language, and the animal’s appreciation for the late comic Robin Williams. And Edelman’s hilarious appreciation of Williams’ talent.
In the hands of a lesser talent, “Just For Us” might never have evolved from a long-form “So a Jew walks into a meeting of white supremacists…”
But here his deliberate choice to make that visit to an apartment in the New York City borough of Queens on a winter Tuesday in 2017 is the clothes hanger upon which Edelman hangs a series of riffs, each funnier than the last.
That includes compiling a database of anti-Semitic tweets and other toxic social media messages and then dealing with the senders of the messages in a most clever and effective way.
He returns again and again to a cast of characters among the 17 people who gathered at that apartment in Queens, including Chelsea, a young woman with a come hither vibe, and the “Jigsaw Lady,” hard at work on a 12,000-piece puzzle and someone who figures prominently in Edelman’s last joke.
At a recent press performance, the fact that Edelman was performing before many family and friends just a few miles from his former Brookline home undoubtedly added to his confidence – an area where he is hardly lacking – but he could have been performing before an audience of white supremacists and done just as well.
Edelman, 34, has been honing his talents for years, with “Just for Us” the third of his three award-winning, sell-out, solo shows, which include runs in London’s West End and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He’s also written extensively for TV, including serving as head writer and executive producer of Saturday Night Seder, a star-studded 70-minute special posted on YouTube.
Director Adam Brace, the associate director at the Soho Theatre in London, has been working with him since 2014, and Edelman has also enlisted advice from noted monologist Mike Birbiglia and a veritable Who’s Who of Boston comedians. Edelman was invited to participate in the latest edition of a Boston tradition, Denis Leary’s “Comics Come Home” fund-raiser.
He also did six shows at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, which led to the theater’s interim artistic director Jenny Gersten making the decision to produce Edelman’s nine-week run that begins in June at the Hudson Theatre in New York City.
We get to know brother A.J., who represented Israel in the Winter Olympics in, of all things, the skeleton, as well as parents Cheryl and Elazer, the stars of the true story “The Year We Did Christmas.” It’s a riff that also gives him a chance to rail against the deficiencies of Hanukkah as a holiday.
And while his Orthodox Jewish upbringing may be at the heart of the piece, by the end it has morphed into a larger message about our shared humanity. It all works and is delivered flawlessly by Edelman in a comic tour de force.
And while the title “Just for Us” refers to specific words uttered by a white supremacist, the reality is that his humor – and this show – is for everybody.
“Just for Us.” Written and performed by Alex Edelman, Directed by Adam Brace. Presented by ATG Colonial. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. April 11-23. $65-$99. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com