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25 Questions for a Jewish Mother

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

One question, and one question only: Do you find braying intolerable for any reason? If you do - and only if you do - then you might be in for a long evening at 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, which just opened at Ars Nova.

But you should know that there's a lot more to the recklessly funny one-woman show starring Judy Gold, which she wrote with Kate Moira Ryan, than 75 minutes of annoying nasal blaring. Though, it must be stated up front, there's plenty of that; when Jewish mothers are the focus of a comedy routine, a monologue, or even an entire play, it's essentially a given. And when Gold first appears standing behind a microphone, describing how her mother freaked out when a telephone conversation was accidentally interrupted, you might feel you know exactly what's in store.

So how odd it is to actually hear her ostensibly indestructible mother mere seconds later on an answering machine message, sounding frightened, anguished, and weak to her very core.

While the show's purest comedic focus is Gold's mother, it's really the traditional Jewish mother attitude - and the preconceptions and stereotypes surrounding it - that Gold and Ryan spend the evening deconstructing, demystifying, and destroying. Well, for the most part. Stereotypes are, after all, sometimes accurate; as Gold details the 25-question interviews she conducted with Jewish women all over the country, many of the typical familiar features - worrying, criticizing, excessive nagging - are in clear evidence.

But Gold - a gay, six-foot-three stand-up comedian - learns that there's a lot more at work; even such a limited group can be a rich collection of individuals. Some of the women she talked to survived the Holocaust. Others had to deal with children who were gay or married outside the faith. One finds Orthodox restrictions all but unbearable; another was saddened by being separated from the men at synagogue. A Chinese woman expounds at length on the similarities of her culture and Jewish culture - and the disastrous turns her life took when she married a Jewish man.

Gold's exploration of the Jewish maternal mystique is intersected in the show by scenes about her own life, focusing on her relationship (and eventual separation from) her longtime partner Wendy, and her relationship with the two sons they had together (with the help of a sperm bank bearing more than a passing resemblance to a take-out joint). What emerges is the story of a woman who, in trying to understand her mother by examining the community she's a part of, better comes to understand herself.

The writing is always precisely pitched, and is given firm but gentle theatrical life by director Karen Kohlhaas; Gold's story is, just like real life, equal parts drama and comedy, with the distinction not always completely clear. The interviews, though, skew toward the sentimental, if never the syrupy - they nicely punctuate, and shed appropriate thematic light upon, Gold's story as well. That, and their sharp brevity, more suggest careful shaping and crafting than verbatim reproduction, but the end results are nonetheless extremely effective.

As for Gold, she embodies each woman with careful consideration and conviction, if with varying degrees of success. She's game and energetic, able to switch back and forth between characters as if she were a human remote control. Gold's skills as a controlled dramatic mimic aren't ultimately up to the level of her sizzling stand-up, which in its depth and breadth of detail - and, of course, her priceless in-your-face delivery - reveals the consummate artist her acting never does.

Except, that is, when she's playing her mother. Standing with her feet spread as though bracing against a wind storm, and protruding her head and lips to create a human foghorn, Gold paints a portrait of her mother so vivid that one can't imagine the actual woman being half as intimidating or entertaining. (No offense to her, though - I wouldn't dare.) The alternately icy, shouty, and indifferent personality Gold adopts for her makes all her key scenes, including a fantasy stand-up comedy set, bitterly yet respectfully hilarious.

When Gold aims her interviewer's gaze in her mother's direction, though, what she learns about her mother's own difficult past and her own journey to maturity proves as surprising for her as it does for us. It's a glimpse into the humanity of someone who otherwise tends to evoke a most inhuman archetype, and who isn't as two-dimensional as Gold, and decades (if not centuries) of ribbing has led most of us to believe. "I love my mother, I just don't want to be her," Gold states early on, though she comes to learn - as many do - that there are far worse fates.


25 Questions for a Jewish Mother
Through February 12
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission
Ars Nova Theater, 511 West 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix