jakub | June 29, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Alex Edelman, a Good Boy With Boundaries

Alex Edelman on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo by Rebecca J Michelson/Theatrely)

“Are you Jewish?” asked writer-performer, comedian, and, as of this month, Broadway star Alex Edelman, halfway through our conversation. We’d been talking about his hit solo show while making a circuit around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of Edelman’s favorite places in New York. (His enjoyment was obvious and infectious: Over the course of our afternoon, he would photobomb a group of teens taking a mirror selfie, bemusedly watch a public dance installation, and argue with a 5-going-on-6-year-old about the material of her dress, which she called plastic and he labeled “some kind of polyester blend.”) I answered his question in the affirmative, with some surprise. I didn’t mind that he asked. But amid our conversation about Jewish identity, Jewish men, Jewish performance, and Jewish shtick, I thought he had made an assumption about me. I thought, without ever articulating it, that we—sitting together in the replica of a room owned by aristocratic Europeans who definitely did not like our ancestors—were an us.

And, in so doing, I stumbled into one of the major themes of Edelman’s Just for Us, an 80-minute performance at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre that centers the comedian’s real-life experience, in 2017, of attending a white nationalist meeting in Queens. He calls the us-versus-them mentality in question “tribalism,” and he created the show, in part, “to explore the tribes we’re a part of, what we take away from them, and what we carry with us into other rooms.” As he explained to me, he wants to know “about the things we obscure in our everyday lives to fit in, and what the cost of that is, and how much of that is forced, and how much of that we imagine to be forced.” 

Throughout the narrative of Just for Us, the thing that Edelman chooses to obscure, at least among the alternately sinister and pathetic group of bigots whose meeting he crashes, is his Jewishness. Whether he reveals himself, or whether he will be revealed, constitutes his story’s major dramatic engine. His audience, of course, never has any doubts as to his cultural background—but the comedian quickly problematizes reductive beliefs about identity and scuttles the urge to identify with him too wholly. Edelman isn’t just Jewish. He was raised Orthodox, and his relationship to religion is intimate and fraught. And he’s not just Alex Edelman: He is, as he relates in Just for Us, Dovid Yosef ben Elazar Reuven Alexander Halevi Edelman. In disclosing his full name onstage, Edelman gestures at a spiritual and familial experience that few in the 1,000-capacity Hudson Theatre may share (often the majority of his audiences are non-Jewish; even fewer intersect with his specific experience of devout Judaism). Edelman’s all right with that. “It’s okay,” he told me as we strode toward the Met’s airy American Wing sculpture garden, “to be a smidge alienating.”

The question of what we share and what we don’t—and an exact definition of the “we” in question—obsesses Edelman and animates Just for Us. The comedian shares a great deal of and about himself onstage, flinging his body around and spinning through a series of intimate anecdotes. But he maintains intentional boundaries. Though he offers audiences the chance to speak to him after the show (he wants, genuinely, to know what they think), he said, “There are times when someone will ask me a question and I’ll say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ And people are very surprised.” He does so not out of self-preservation (Alex Edelman will, it seems, talk about pretty much anything) but to avoid easy answers. “There’s value,” he said, “to being not an open book, but a book that’s open to certain pages. There’s value in being thoughtful and considerate about what you reveal to audiences.”

Openness, or perhaps the illusion of openness, proves a vital tool in Just for Us. The character of Alex Edelman welcomes his audience with affable, loose-limbed charm. He’s got a shayne punim and a self-deprecating streak, his utterances salted with millennial deadpan. A bit about Koko the Gorilla transforms into a joke about desperate loneliness during the pandemic. During an extended interlude about his brother, an Olympic skeleton competitor, he takes aim at his own lanky physique. Underneath this seemingly ad hoc delivery, though (he describes his performance style as “telling you a story at a party”), lies a relentless pursuit of “dime-perfect precision”—an intellectual rigor that has driven Edelman to tweak the show again and again, and again, since its debut in 2018. “Comedy is a game of inches,” he said, “particularly in my show. So I’m very careful about the small pieces that make it fun and new and interesting.” (Detail-oriented doesn’t begin to describe Edelman; at one point, he laid his body down in front of an Egyptian sarcophagus near the Temple of Dendur, eager to illustrate the minuscule size of his first Edinburgh Fringe stage.)

This exacting focus extends even to how Edelman moves and clothes his body while performing. “I’m very clean onstage,” he explained. “Very neat, very precise in my movements. No patterns, clean lines, black jeans, a shirt buttoned all the way to the top. Very fastidious, much more fastidious than I am in real life. A very fastidious man.”

He presents this buttoned-up aesthetic for the same reason he showcases his dorky dancing and bellows an exultant, Yiddish-inflected “Gut Shabbes!” near the top of his performance. He wants to come across onstage as a “good boy.” A good Jewish boy, to be exact. The approachable extrovert who will talk to anyone but knows when to listen. The kind of guy who can empathize with anyone, who can fit in anywhere, who will even consider helping white nationalists curate their online presence if it means being liked. 

When taking aim at the “good boy” in conversation, though, Edelman’s demeanor changed. Keen edges surfaced and his pronouncements sharpened. “The joke” of the show, he said, “is that none of us are good boys.” Moments later, as we imbibed the serenity of the Astor Chinese Garden Court, he put the concept of empathy under a similarly unforgiving microscope. “The truth is that empathy should be a basic human emotion,” he argued, before adding, “Or maybe it shouldn’t be an emotion at all, if you’re sitting with white nationalists.”

This compulsion to examine both sides of an issue is, he knows, very Jewish. The comedian embraces the idea of questions that he “can’t answer but does ask,” noting that within Jewish tradition, “asking the question is just as good as answering it.” (In diverting his audience’s questions, then, maybe he’s also engaging them in proto-Talmudic discourse.) But don’t mistake this capaciousness for equivocation. Edelman refuses definitive statements only when they might lead to reductive thinking, intellectual laziness, and smugness, all of which he despises. “The show is hopefully a battle against smug,” he said. “The ur-narrative of the show has to do with self-satisfaction.” After all, if a good boy thinks that he’s a good boy—is he really a good boy?

Alex Edelman in “Just for Us.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Edelman has spent years honing this portrayal, questioning and redirecting his own impulses. To that end, he solicited “master class notes” from comedians like Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Stephen Colbert, and Ben Stiller. Most influential of all have been Edelman’s mentor and producer, Mike Birbiglia, and his director, dramaturg, and co-deviser, Adam Brace, who died a few months ago at the age of 43. When the comedian spoke about Brace’s sudden passing, he did so with a stark, disarming candor. “I think performing the show will be extremely gratifying and very painful,” he said, “because it’s this tether to him. I cannot stress how close we were. He emphasized the best parts of me and helped me cover up or address the weakest. It’s so rare what happened to this show. It’s so surpassingly lucky. For a show this spare to go to Broadway, everything needs to go right, and Adam was the thing that went very right.”

A solo show invites a certain self-aggrandizement that’s hard to escape. Over the past five years, thousands of audience members have clung to Edelman’s words, rapt, ready to laugh or boo or gasp. But the performer’s continual invocations of Birbiglia and Brace, of David Sedaris and Spalding Gray and Doug Wright, of his father and family and friends, of the Jewish people, work against any impulse toward self-absorption. Even as he aligns himself with previously extant comic and religious traditions, Edelman remains wary of over-simplification. To the word “representation,” he reacted with caution. “I don’t know…” he hedged, pondering a question about the Jewish male body onstage. “I can only really speak to my body.” Still, the performer is aware of the community that has shaped the show. Of the sections that focus on his family, he said, “I need to explain why I am how I am in a room. You need context for what it means to be me.”

Jews who love theatre—or people who love theatre about Jews—have enjoyed something of a bonanza over the past year. The 2022-23 New York season has featured Tom Stoppard’s sumptuous Leopoldstadt and a celebrated revival of Parade—both Tony winners, and both based in depictions of historical antisemitism. Next year, Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic and Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s Harmony will address similar themes. Just for Us distinguishes itself from these plays with its stand-up-inspired form, but also its setting. Queens in 2017 is uncomfortably close, and Edelman’s workaday white nationalists, who struggle with puzzles and chow down on pastries, feel eerily normal. There’s a difference, too, in the way that Just for Us treats its audience. Part of the appeal of works like Leopoldstadt and Parade lies in their formation of an “us” that comprises Jewish and non-Jewish audience members alike, allied against the bigotry we all witness onstage. But Edelman questions such a union. If we’ve formed an us, he wants to know why and how, and who it includes. And he wants the aforementioned “us” to ask those same questions of him and of ourselves.

The desire to inspire critical thinking helps explain Edelman’s favorite kind of joke, the kind that he considers “technically great” because it asks the audience to do “exactly half the work.” As a signature example he offered, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” An Alex Edelman version of this form might look like his admission that, upon meeting a cute white nationalist, “I thought to myself, with no irony, ‘You never know.’”

This division of labor takes curation. In fact, the comedian said, “Curation is everything.” Because, as seriously as Edelman takes his own personal context and the context of his work, what matters the most to him is the context brought by each individual audience member. As a case study for how this context functions, Edelman referenced a major theme of his show, i.e., Jews and their relationship to whiteness. He explained, “People with a lot of uncertainties on one side or the other leave with lots of doubt about that relationship, because it is a complicated relationship. I never say that it’s complicated, but people understand based on how it’s presented.”

In other words, Edelman leaves his audience with the feeling that he gets it, whether that “it” is nerdiness or Jewishness or outsiderness or the desire to be a good boy. But every now and then he pulls back, reminding his audience that it is we, not he, who have filled the space between us—and that we have done so by imagining a set of shared experiences that may or may not exist. “The show isn’t about your Judaism,” he reminded me as we sat on a sunlit marble fountain. In fact, when it comes to his own spiritual beliefs, “You don’t know the half of it!”

With that caution, that expression of our differences, Edelman helped me understand the game at the heart of Just for Us, its irresistible comic pattern. By leaving space for his audience, the comedian forces us to make assumptions about him and about ourselves. When he upends those shibboleths, though, he gestures toward a deeper, more rigorous mode of thinking, spectating, and interacting with others. A mode of thinking that questions outward appearances and deeply held beliefs—that drives him to ask, “Are you Jewish?” even when he already knows the answer.

Gabrielle Hoyt is a dramaturg, writer, and director. She is pursuing her MFA at Yale. @gabhoyt

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