Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Old Jews Telling Jokes
New Jewish Theatre

Also see Richard's review of Bachelorette

Johanna Elkana-Hale, Bobby Miller, Craig Neuman, Dave Cooperstein and Stellie Siteman
There's nothing like sitting back and just laughing for 75 minutes, and if you doubt it at all, go see this show. Five very funny, talented actors show you how to really laugh at yourself, even if you're not Jewish.

Of course, there are a few moments of heartfelt reflection too, as when actor Dave Cooperstein recounts the story of a father and son using the power of silly humor to get through a genuinely frightening family crisis. (And it's the best thing I've ever seen Mr. Cooperstein do, probably.) It's all thanks to director Edward Coffield, providing something inescapably direct and precise (and hilarious) throughout.

And then (I can't tell you the punchline, but the set-up's not bad, all alone), Bobby Miller plays an old Jewish guy who's been praying for world peace for sixty years at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Johanna Elkana-Hale is terrific as the smirking CNN reporter "on the scene." She's there, as if she's just-this-minute found someone who's finally seen that downed Malaysian jetliner, at long last. But, instead, she's grabbing what's supposed to be a great moment of faith and piety for all the world to see. That, I can tell you, is as good as the joke itself: her gleeful importuning of an old man, as the camera watches and waits. And then, of course, there's the payoff, which elicits a roar of laughter from the audience.

Craig Neuman has a great one-liner that surprised me, how well it worked. And maybe it didn't hurt that director Coffield gave him such a smooth and extravagant set-up to go along with it: Ms. Elkana-Hale, and the great, husky-voiced Stellie Siteman, along with Mr. Cooperstein (in a head-scarf and big sunglasses) all dutifully line up on a park bench, as Mr. Neuman is beginning to speak.

But I just cannot break the rules of comedy, even though it was a joke (about Jewish mothers) that twisted our minds like a pretzel, in one short phrase.

There are some great old songs, and some very nice PowerPoint projections, like the old vaudevillian title cards going up in the background. But mostly it's like some crazy car chase, where our minds are sent racing around one corner, and then twisting back the other way, as everyone just laughs and laughs at the rhetorical shell game. Ten years ago, to my wistful sadness, I discovered I was (in fact) too old to re-live Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disney World, but this ride is even more fun now, just sitting still.

It all reminds me very much of when I was a teenager, in the 1970s, and going to grown-up parties at my Jewish friend's home. And watching as the grown-ups' brash, analytical conversational skills went flashing and clashing together, in all forms of ribbing and kidding and jokes of dumb and dazzling and (sometimes) dubious propriety. I only knew I was lucky to be included.

Does a whiplash sense of humor (on topics ranging from marriage to sex to work to birth, to death itself) make you a more kind, aware, honest, and loving person? Well, let's just say, it couldn't hurt.

And finally we come to the point where I try to figure out what it all means. So here goes: our identities are always changing. Half the time, we don't even know our identities have changed again, while we weren't even looking. This is most hastily revealed in the humor of this show. And, in our own lives, the countries we used to treat like doormats are suddenly walking all over us; and the people we desperately wanted to, well, "subjugate" romantically? Pretty much the same: now, the shoe is on the other foot at last. And all we can do is comfort ourselves with the knowledge that our identities, like water, will just keep on changing till the very end.

It actually reminds me of an old joke I just heard in the theater...

Created and compiled by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent, Old Jews Telling Jokes runs through June 1, 2014, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Dr., just west of Lindbergh Blvd. off of Scheutz Rd. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.

Reuben: Dave Cooperstein
Debbi: Johanna Elkana-Hale
Nathan: Bobby Miller*
Morty: Craig Neuman
Bunny: Stellie Siteman*

Production Staff
Director: Edward Coffield
Stage Manager: Mary Jane Probst*
Scenic and Projection Designers: Peter & Margery Spack
Lighting Designer: Nathan Schroeder
Costume Designer: Michele Friedman Siler
Properties Designer: Jenny Smith
Scenic Artists: Peter & Margery Spack
Technical Director: Jerry Russo
Master Electrician: Tanner Douglas
Assistant Stage Manager & Wardrobe: Becky Fortner
Board Operator: Blake Manns

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association

Photo: John Lamb

-- Richard T. Green

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