He bounds onto the naked stage with eager-to-please restlessness like a puppy let out for a romp, and for the next 90 minutes — unlike many a standup comic — he never stands still, he never stops moving, he roams all over. He unapologetically owns the spontaneity and energy in his winning animation; he refers to himself as “professionally charming” and “part of a generation of overmedicated ADHD children.” He is arguably adorkable. All the while he is super attuned to every audible response from the audience, and he almost never stops cracking us up.
I say almost because this comedian’s act has a serious aim. Alex Edelman, born and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, has come to town to send up antisemitic white supremacists. That’s his schtick. And he is so sly about it you will double over in laughter before it hits you.
Edelman’s solo show Just for Us, now playing through December 23, 2022, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, smartly directed by Adam Brace, follows on successive sold-out runs in New York City. To his opening night audience, his hilarity seemed exhilarating. He joked about telling “dumb and small” jokes. He joked about the different kinds of white people in Boston, where he’s from (hint: WASPs are on top). He joked about how the empty four-word phrase “Can you believe it?” can be replied meaningfully to just about anything.
Building on his theme, Edelman slips in sharp observations, like the difference between how someone once a Christian can be lapsed and no longer considered Christian but a Jew even if a nonbeliever can never not be a Jew. (Edelman generously makes certain that every culturally specific expression he uses is translated for non-Jews.)
Usually, he tells loosely related anecdotes, many about his mother, father, and brother. Among the most vivid was his description of the time his Jewish family made Christmas — for a non-Jewish woman who would otherwise have been all alone. The tree they decorated was topped with a teddy bear holding a dreidel. The awkward life lesson for the two sons was ostensibly empathy.
Empathy proves to be the elusive throughline of Edelman’s fascinating storytelling, the major arc of which is his visit to a gathering of antisemitic white nationalists in Brooklyn. The setup entails some trolling on Twitter that results in his receipt of a tweeted invitation to a meeting where participants could talk about “hashtag whiteness.” As a Jew who often passes for white, Edelman was curious. He shows up at the meeting, joins in the conversation, flirts with a young woman, regales the group with techspertise, and is not discovered. Until he is.
To say more would steal the fun and thunder, but at a point, Edelman asks a profound question: “To who do we owe our empathy?” In context, he appears to be asking: Does he owe empathy to these people he meets who if they know who he was would hate him in order to be white?
Put-down humor — whether about ethnicity, sexuality, gender expression, the list goes on — has been the stock in trade of many an acclaimed comedian, and I take it as a good sign that some of those who rely on it are getting public blowback. (Need I name names?) What I found refreshing about Alex Edelman’s Just for Us is that he doesn’t go there, he doesn’t put down. Even when recalling being in a room full of people whose self-concept depends on denying and derogating and disparaging his, he sketches for us portraits of personalities that are carefully observed, not cruel.
Ultimately Edelman’s show sheds an important light on whiteness. “A social construct,” he calls it at one point, somewhat fliply. But in all seriousness, he shares with us laughter to help us see through it.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Just for Us plays through December 23, 2022, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC, with performances on select dates (see calendar for performance schedule). Tickets (starting at $34, with discounts available for those 30 and under, military, educators, and more) can be purchased online, by phone at (202) 393-3939, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COVID Safety: Masks must be worn at all times while in the building when not actively eating or drinking. Learn more about Woolly Mammoth’s health and safety protocols at woollymammoth.net/about-us/safety/.
Just for Us
By and starring Alex Edelman
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Director: Adam Brace
Production Supervisor: Rachael Danielle Albert