Off Broadway Reviews
No! Stop! Hold the retaliatory barbs. I assure you I'm no garden-variety heckler. Hear me out.
Please note that I did not say that Not That Jewish is not funny at all. Piper, who in addition to an acclaimed standup career has written for such major and/or hilarious TV comedies as Roseanne, Mad About You, Duckman, and Rugrats (for which she won an Emmy), definitely knows how to craft a joke. To quote one, of many: "I embarked on my busy day. First, buy something to wear for the Ginsberg bar mitzvah. At the mall, I found the perfect dress, which they had in every size but mine. resenting the waste of time, I checked my to-do list. There, wedged between the bank and Trader Joe's, was the appointment for my yearly routine mammogram. I sat in the clinical chamber of horrors in my little paper gown, waiting for the technician. Five minutes and passed, and I wondered if I'd be wearing this to the Ginsberg bar mitzvah." (An even better secondary punch line comes a few minutes later, but that would be spoiling.)
She's agile at serving up the hilarity, too. Her relation of others' jokes (mostly her parents') is reliant on dragging you into their personalities so that you'll be as unprepared for what comes next as their audiences were. Her tiny frame pops out with a blaring voice that's just gentle enough to nudge you in one direction before flooring you with an uppercut from the other. And even when you see what's coming, as with a second story about packing a suitcase that directly hearkens back to the earlier one, her timing, facial expressions, and vocal impersonations (dare I say these equate to acting ability?) are such that she forces you to laugh anyway, regardless of the subject.
Piper's primary concern is, of course, her Jewishness, or lack thereof, and she claims it has been ever since next-door-neighbor Carol Bengelsdorf used those exact words to describe her. She has a stomach and a taste for chopped liver, and will sit Shiva when a relative dies, but she doesn't go to temple much, and isn't great with the language. ("Friends and family watched Jake get through his Torah portion with ease," she says about her son's becoming a man, "and me struggling to speak the Hebrew prayers. I sounded like Jerry Lewis. 'Borucha Chayyayy.'") But she's got the politics (Democrat), the sense of humor, and, most important, the heart, which means she couldn't be a gentile even if she wanted to be, right?
Really, though, her play, which has been simply directed by Mark Waldrop on portrait-wall memoryscape set (by Michael Carnahan), is more about her family and her crazy experiences: her comedian father, her clever mother, the love of her life Jake (who's adopted); what it was like debuting at the legendary Comedy Store; how she almost slept with Mickey Mantle; what it was like surviving breast cancer. And though she has plenty of fun with all these topics and more, the treatment is much sweeter than it is acerbic. Because of this, the setups and payoffs are limited in their comedic opportunities, too. What you get is not a standup routine, but a standard-issue bioplay with, perhaps, an above-average number of laughs.
Butand this is keythe sweet and serious stuff is really winning. Her reminiscences of her father and mother's 50-year marriage, the discussion of how she acquired and raised Jake, what it's been like trying to survive as an unconventional woman in the difficult performing arts industries, and so onall of that lands squarely, and with tremendous affection. Piper has taken the unusual avenue of not trying to split your sides, even though she's clearly capable of doing so, and instead taken the attack straight to your heart. And when she really wants to triumph, she willI swear I heard plenty of sniffling when Piper recited a touching letter she received from her son's biological mother, and that's not what you anticipate from a show this irreverent.
Some of that sniffling was my own, by the way. So, no, Not That Jewish isn't as funny as you think it will or should be, but it's far moving, and the good time you get when you go, even if it's not the kind you expect, will not leave you feeling deprived at all. Piper may claim to make most of her living in comedy, but what she really trades in is something even more beautiful and theatrical: truth.
Not That Jewish