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Old Jews Telling Jokes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Audrey Lynn Weston, Marilyn Sokol, Lenny Wolpe, Todd Susman, and Bill Army.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Sometimes in their quest to attract ticket buyers, producers and other theatrical creative types make life unusually easy for critics and audiences alike. Take, for example, Old Jews Telling Jokes, which just opened at the Westside Theatre. You don't need to consider, even for a moment, whether or not it's for you: Your gut reaction is all you need. Once you've obtained that—which, by this point, I'm assuming you have—all you need is for the two most obvious questions to be addressed: Is the title accurate? And is the show funny? The answer to both of these is a resounding yes.

From there, the reviewer's life gets mighty tricky, especially if he wants to spoil as little as he can. (That's my pledge to you, though I might bend it slightly later on.) After all, if a show is literally nothing more than back-to-back-to-back insta-trips to a Catskills club, what more can safely be said about its content without driving a stake right through the heart of its natural hilarity? And if it's delivered by a multitalented cast (comprising three genuine and brilliant oldsters in Marilyn Sokol, Todd Susman, and Lenny Wolpe, and the noticeably younger Bill Army and Audrey Lynn Weston) under laser-precise direction (by Marc Bruni), does anything else matter?

I have to go with "no" on this one. Even if you're not familiar with the same-named website that inspired Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent to create this live adaptation (as, admittedly, I was not), the formula is essentially impenetrable. It's been dressed up a little with a vaudeville-astute set (by David Gallo) that capitalizes on a sliding HDTV for displaying subheadings for the various wisecracks ("Birth," "Sex Before Marriage," and so on) and occasionally depicts locations like a doctor's office or a desert island, and a handful of songs including Tom Lehrer's "Hannukah in Santa Monica" and a bouncy new title song by up-and-coming theatrical composer Adam Gwon. But even if it were just the five performers on a bare, black stage, what's here would still be robust enough to encourage gales of guffaws every minute that rival—and in some cases, it seems, surpass—what you can currently find on Broadway in the excellent just-opened London import, One Man, Two Guvnors (minus the pratfalls, that is).

I'm quite serious. Gethers, Okrent, and Bruni have achieved the near-impossible by assembling an evening in which everything—yes, everything—gets the intended laugh. This isn't to say that every gag lands in exactly the same way every time; at the performance I attended, there were certain pockets of people more predisposed to laugh at certain things than others, and some who had to be coaxed into action gradually. But given the legitimately show-stopping impact of a few of the choicer segments it was equally clear that some things appealed to everyone. Oh yes, even including the gentiles who had somehow ended up in the seats where, one suspects from certain key lines and the script's overall focus, they're more welcomed than they are anticipated (including, for what it's worth, yours truly).

It's tough to argue with a track record like that, so I'm not going to try—though inclusion of one maudlin monologue for each "character" and a birth-to-death sequence about a Jewish men named Saperstein come perilously close to interrupting the flow. I am, however, compelled to mention one potential caveat, and it's not a small one: the jokes themselves. They're not all Henny Youngman knock-offs, but a number of them investigate that territory thoroughly, and just about all the rest are sufficiently time-tested that Youngman's great-grandmother would have found them knee-slappers as a girl. And despite PR that suggesting a lot of what you'll hear has been reinvented, that's only the case if you consider "acted out" rather than just "told" as a reinvention—which I, for one, don't. That helps preserve freshness, but even so, there's something abrasive about 80 intermissionless minutes of this; what begins as a rollicking novelty grows familiar quickly, and if you find your patience starting to fray around the halfway point—well, you're not alone.

But for the most part, the cast makes Old Jews Telling Jokes pretty irresistible. Sokol acquires national treasure status with this material: Her timing could not be better, and her barking of key punch lines ("So you're not married?", "He had a hat!") alone is worth the price of admission. Wolpe carries the bulk of the evening's musical load, but is just as deftly delightful at the merriment-making—he takes the lead role in two of the centerpiece scenes, one about (ahem) "The Drobkin Fart" and another about a Jew gone WASPy, and is silky smooth in both. Susman's subtle, almost apologetic, delivery is a fine match for his cast mates' brasher bravado, but is every bit as joyous. Army is a major find, wonderfully malleable in a wide variety of roles; and Weston's delightful knife-in-the-back sense of humor nicely compensates for her generally overstated reactions to the audience's screams.

Although, really, who can blame her? Given how sanitized, manufactured, and mechanical so many shows are today, it can't be easy for actors to adjust to audiences once again being fully in control. They are at the Westside Theatre now, and likely will be for the foreseeable future—and that's okay. Old Jews Telling Jokes may not advance the cause of comedy—at all—but in providing such a thrilling throwback to the days when life really was something to laugh about, it provides a service that, in its own way, is every bit as valuable and necessary.

Old Jews Telling Jokes
Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current schedule: Telecharge

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