25 Questions for a Jewish Mother
Judy Gold's goals in 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother are to make her audience laugh, tell her life story in an entertaining way, and to examine the role of the Jewish mother in society. That's a lot to accomplish in a 75-minute, one-woman show, and while she delivers a lot of laughs, her success in the other two departments is hit and miss.
A veteran standup comic (with appearances on The Tonight Show, Comedy Central and HBO to her credit), Gold is very funny as she tells of her frustrations growing up in North Jersey. The biggest hurdle to her happiness, it seems, was Ruth, her controlling and disapproving mother. Gold does a withering impression of Ruth, and she notes that their relationship became so strained at one point that they only communicated "by putting Ann Landers articles on the refrigerator." Eventually she grows up and takes a path very different from her mother's; the story of how Gold and her longtime partner Wendy became the parents of two young boys is a remarkable one. Judy struggled not just to win her mother's approval for her lesbian relationship, but not to be the unrelenting nag that Ruth was ("I love my mother," says Judy, "I just don't want to be her").
But the script, co-written by Kate Moira Ryan, takes an uncomfortable turn when Judy and Wendy break up after a two-decade relationship (for reasons that are never explained). Gold's tale of how she soldiered on valiantly on her own seems too much like a demand for approval from the audience. Gold says she grew up listening to Barbra Streisand records in her bedroom and identifying with Streisand; this section of the show smacks of Streisand's self-indulgent streak.
Oh, and then there are those 25 questions - remember the show's title? Over a period of five years, Gold and Ryan traveled the country and interviewed over fifty Jewish mothers, asking them detailed questions on their attitudes about family and faith, trying to determine how these women fit and/or break the stereotypes of Jewish motherhood. (It's a short show, so we only hear about half of the questions.) Gold deftly impersonates each of the interviewees. Some of the stories are charming (a Chinese-American convert); some are chilling (the tale of a woman who undermined her daughter's relationship with a non-Jew is, in a way, more horrifying than the several Holocaust survival stories).
But how well do these interviews blend with the rest of the show - Gold's narrative about her life under her mother's thumb? Sometimes the stories fit smoothly, sometimes they don't. Part of Gold's purpose in conducting the interviews was to determine how unusual her own life story was, but the stories don't give the audience a great deal of perception into either Judy's or Ruth's lives. It's telling that Judy's greatest insight into Ruth's life comes not from the 25 questions but from a long-hidden story Ruth reveals about a tragic incident from the 1930s.
Gold is a marvelous, compelling performer; those years on the standup circuit have really paid off. And Karen Kohlhaas' subtle and smart direction (with different sections of the show performed in distinct areas of the stage) plays to Gold's strengths nicely. But the mishmash of elements adds up to a show that is often witty, interesting and entertaining, yet frustratingly less than the sum of its parts.
25 Questions for a Jewish Mother runs through December 21, 2008 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $49 each and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.
25 Questions for a Jewish Mother