When given the opportunity to review a show with a tribal theme, I jump on it. Nothing brings me more joy than to see the Jewish experience on stage, as I relate to things both blatant and nuanced, recalling memories of my grandparents as the onstage story unfolds. After My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy, I walked out with a deep sense of ambivalence having experienced both profound connection and disjointed distance.
Brad Zimmermann, the author and sole performer, bounds onto a black stage wearing matching black T-shirt and jeans. He starts out swinging, immediately jumping into Catskills-type jokes, informing the audience that he is his own opening act. This works well as a setup for the show, and Zimmermann uses his improv skills to poke fun at “the one Gentile in here.” Zimmermann goes way off script with an audience member who is chosen as a volunteer in a short exchange. After the audience member speaks with a deep, throaty voice, Zimmermann stops the skit and says, “Is that your actual voice? What are you trying to do?” Zimmermann chooses another audience member to complete the skit, but not before exclaiming to the first volunteer, “You missed a really good opportunity here.” He obviously has a flair for improv, and nails the over-60 crowd with his “Have you heard this one?” one-liners.
Zimmermann sparkles as he plays dual roles in his conversations with his mother. His relationship with his mother is, by far, the highlight of the show. The entire show could include only these stories and be wildly successful because this is where we see Zimmermann at his most connected to his material. He is not trying to do anything; he is just connecting to his audience through his experiences as a “disappointment” to his mother. His impression of his mother is spot-on, which we know without having met her. He embodies her mannerisms, gravelly tone, over-enunciation, and unique cadence in a way that cannot be taught other than from personal experience. He endears us to his mother as she continually stresses to Brad that “I just want to see you happy. If this makes you happy, then I’m happy… Can you just tell me how long you think you will keep trying this acting thing?… Just an estimation… But if you’re happy, I’m happy.” Zimmermann doesn’t overdo the portrayal, which would plunge this into caricature territory. He strikes a perfect balance of humor and humanity that sucked me right in.
The audience also falls in love with his father through Zimmermann’s eyes. His most poignant moments come as he describes his father’s unending positivity and steadfast belief in his son’s gifts as well as his own, exclaiming, “Attaboy, Zimmie!” when his son hit a home run in Little League or when he is trying to psych himself into self-celebratory encouragement. This is a turning point for Zimmermann, who goes from 20-plus years of living in fear to, as his psychiatrist suggested, “embracing fear.” He inspires us with his realization that he has to jump in with both feet and expect failure, because “the goal is participation,” not success. His personal journey through insecurity and enlightenment is so relatable that I found myself nodding my head vigorously, understanding his pain and internal struggle to feel relevant.
For as many moments of intimacy and vulnerability there are in the show, there are an equal number of times Zimmermann pushes the audience away. He creates those beautiful moments where we are let into his inner world, only to shift over to a stand-up–style musing about sports, or a rant à la Larry David and angst à la Richard Lewis, which sets up the premise that he is a miserable bachelor who knows he is a loser and still picks on everyone else’s shortcomings. These diatribes pull us out of the story of his life and into a mode of supporting Zimmermann’s anger. We either relate to his frustration with people who hate that reality TV makes people famous without “the struggle,” or we stop relating because this is no longer a unique, personal narrative about Brad Zimmermann; it’s now a cynical, negative, talking joke book. He is better than that, and I am not sure he knows it.
This is the inherent problem with the show: It has an identity crisis. It tries to be too many things, and Zimmermann’s own admitted insecurities show as a result. He does not seem to realize that just showing us his life in relation to his parents is enough to sell tickets. In fact, that is enough of a reason to go see this show despite its shortcomings. His personal story is enough. It’s more than enough. I wanted more of that, more stories that encapsulated his insecurities without rants about social media and reality TV. (On a side note, if Zimmermann chooses to keep reality TV references in his script, they should be updated to reflect today’s most popular reality shows. The references are outdated by at least a decade, giving the impression that this is recycled material.)
The show concludes with Zimmermann sharing that his mother is just as proud of him for his theatrical success as was his father about his sports prowess. It is clear that all along, they loved him for who he is. I wish Zimmermann knew that the audience feels the same way, so he can cut out the extraneous material and share his whole, vulnerable self with the world. That, on its own, would be enough — just like Zimmermann who, without gimmicks, is enough.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy plays through August 21, 2022 — with performances Thursdays and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm — at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. (Use the Q Street entrance.) Purchase tickets ($60) online or by calling the ticket office at 202-777-3210.
Find out more about the touring show at mysonthewaiter.com.
COVID Safety: In accordance with the Edlavitch DCJCC policy, all individuals will be required to show proof of full vaccination each time they enter the EDCJCC by presenting either digital documentation on a smartphone or a physical copy of their vaccination card. Individuals with medical or religious exemptions to vaccinations will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of their arrival to the EDCJCC. All patrons in the Goldman Theater will be required to wear masks. Only performers and guests invited onstage may be unmasked. Masks are optional but encouraged in the Q Street and 16th Street lobbies, hallways, and other public spaces. Theater J front-of-house staff and volunteers will continue to wear masks. For more information, visit Theater J’s COVID Safety Guidelines.