You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Jewtopia, but it certainly wouldn't hurt. Everyone is likely to find at least one or two things to laugh at in the wacky and inconsistent comedy by Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson that has just opened at the Westside Theatre (Downstairs) after a lengthy Los Angeles engagement. If it's never great theatre, it does exactly what it needs to: it works.
That should not be considered faint praise for this play, which fights an uphill battle against expectations from its earliest moments. Two hours of jokes trading in on every Jewish stereotype imaginable won't be to be everyone's idea of a great time, but it's done here with such earnest affection that the sharp-edged, unabashed audacity of it all forces a grin onto your face.
You get the feeling that for Fogel and Wolfson, who also star, that's good enough. Laughter is the goal here, not insight (or at least not much of it), so the story they've developed is mostly inconsequential: Chris O'Donnell (Fogel), an Irish Catholic, longs to marry a Jewish woman so he'll never have to make a decision again; Adam Lipschitz, authentically Jewish, needs help finding just the right woman so he can keep his mother happy. In exchange for dating tips, Adam offers to help Chris immerse himself in Jewish culture.
Nearly every subsequent scene fills out this idea, examining how Chris introduces Adam to a Jewish dating website (with 500,000 single Jewish women, he refers to jdate.com as "Jewtopia") or how Adam introduces Chris to his one-time rabbi and the mother of a woman he's particularly interested in. The jokes range from the simple to the intricate, with a brief glimpse of Adam reading Judaism for Dummies and a lengthy sequence capping the first act in which Adam drills Chris on how to behave around his date's parents.
This scene is the most biting and legitimately funny in the show, with a volley of clichés and stereotypes so numerous, you might mistake it for target practice. Yet the skewering of everything from how to order food at a restaurant (alter every menu item into unrecognizability) and what to do when it arrives (take a bite and send it back) to what to watch on television (no Fox News) is so relentless and over-the-top that laughter is almost inevitable. At the performance I attended this scene received a couple of honest-to-goodness Producers-size laughs.
Mel Brooks's work is an apt comparison for what Fogel and Wolfson do here, if the focus here is narrower and fuzzier. That's less of a problem during the first act, which is raucous bordering on hilarious, than during the second, when the two creators must keep their comic juggernaut under control once the initial spark of originality is gone. A bloated series of awkwardly written dates for Adam, and a strained Passover scene introducing Adam's lascivious grandfather and rebellious younger sister to questionable comic effect, don't do enough to keep Jewtopia's momentum high.
New York director John Tillinger (the L.A. incarnation was helmed by Andy Fickman) has staged the show with a lightning-quick sensibility and a wry sense of humor; he's also well in tune Fogel and Wolfson comic sensibility. If the two leads at times seem a bit unpolished as performers (particularly Fogel, who's rather stiff onstage), they have a palpable chemistry together, and the show's biggest laughs always come from their working in concert. Cheryl David, also from the L.A. cast, pops with antic, uproarious energy in a variety of Jewish mother roles, while Gerry Vichi lends some real paternal gravitas to the proceedings. Jackie Tohn, Lorry Goldman, and Irina Pantaeva also do fine in a number of smaller roles.
Whether this show becomes as big a hit in New York as it was in Los Angeles remains to be seen, but the show's universal good-naturedness suggests it as a strong possibility. If, in the end, the show is little more than an escapist comedy, it's definitely an enjoyable one. As Chris says early on about his attraction to Jewish women, "It's like I didn't have to think anymore." In his case - and Jewtopia's - that doesn't turn out to be such a terrible thing.