‘Just for Us’ Review: Alex Edelman’s Broadway Stand-Up Show Is Irresistible
Alex Edelman wants to know that you’re having a good time. The 34-year-old comedian, whose nimbly clever solo show “Just for Us” is now on Broadway, describes himself as “solicitous” and “professionally charming.” To audiences at the Hudson Theatre, Edelman’s college-buddy congeniality is the key to this 75-minute narrative set. How else could a nice Jewish boy walk into a meetup of white supremacists and turn his experience into hilarious social commentary?
He’d have to be granted entrance first, permission that Edelman allows he owed to his whiteness — though whether it was a privilege in this case is debatable. (He points to his hometown of Boston as especially stratified by racial hierarchies, with WASPs, or “the Mayflower whites,” at the top.) And this wasn’t a Klan meeting in the South, but a get-together in a Queens living room, where Edelman was drawn after tracking anti-semitic trolls who antagonized him on Twitter (the year was 2017).
Edelman’s encounter with a cozy circle of racists (or “antisemicircle,” in his characteristic wordplay) is fringed with circuitous tangents that gradually cohere into a detailed portrait of his principles and personality. To demonstrate just how Jewish the Edelmans are, for example, Alex explains that his brother qualified as a winter Olympian for Israel (“I called him the Frozen Chosen for like two years”). His parents were so committed to empathy, which Edelman calls the center of all Jewish values, that they once hosted Christmas for a friend who had lost her family. (“He is a fat man,” Edelman’s father told the boys of Santa. “But it’s a good fat.”)
“Just for Us,” which Edelman has previously performed off Broadway as well as in London, Melbourne, and Washington, D.C., blends elements of memoir and social critique into well-paced, punchline-driven standup. (Edelman notes in the program that Mike Birbiglia, who is among the show’s producers, has been an influence and a mentor.) The piece was developed with the director Adam Brace, who died suddenly from a stroke in April, before this production began; Alex Timbers served as a creative consultant. Aside from a few black stools Edelman pulls up for unseen for white nationalists, he holds the stage on his own.
Wearing white sneakers, black jeans and a shirt buttoned all the way up, Edelman is a vigorous and loose-limbed carousel of gestures (he calls himself a product of the “over-medicated, ADHD” generation, and says that when he tried cocaine he felt like there was homework to do). But as he bounds from one corner of the stage to another, his energy is less nervous or hyperactive than confident and curious. Who are the people assembled in that room, grazing “whites only muffins” and nodding in agreement over some perceived loss of position and power?
Edelman does, to some degree, seek to humanize a few of his adversaries, like a young woman named Chelsea he can’t help flirting with. But this is not one of those stories that tries to recognize logic in bigotry for the supposed edification of liberal, white (and in this case, perhaps, especially Jewish) audiences. Edelman rather turns to self-reflection, asking why he presumed he might be able to fix a group of grassroots racists. “They’re just Nazis because they haven’t met Alex yet,” he recalls thinking at the time. On the one hand, it sounds absurd. On the other, what is the role of individual responsibility when it comes to social justice?
Questions at the show’s heart, about the origins and limits of empathy — where we get it from, and to whom we owe it — would benefit from a slight downshift in pace, to lend them greater heft than the brisk clip of laughs. Then again, treating tough truths with quick humor would seem like another defining feature of Edelman’s inheritance.
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