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Cheryl David, Sam Wolfson, Gerry Vichi, and Bryan Fogel
Photo © Carol Rosegg
The cast of Jewtopia hams it up so much that it would take all the rabbis in Anatevka to bless the show kosher, but that's to be expected with ethnic comedies of this sort; the actors who play newlyweds in Tony n' Tina's Wedding aren't known for their subtlety and the grating nuns of Late Nite Catechism never took vows of silence. Yes, Jewtopia is hokey; but if you go in knowing that, you may be surprised by how often its humor hits the mark.

The show begins with childhood friends Adam Lipschitz and Chris O'Connell (played by co-creators Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson) at a Jewish singles mixer. The former is there to placate his mother, while the latter wants to marry into the tribe so that he'll "never have to make another decision." O'Connell's goyish charm goes far toward wooing prospective yentas but Lipschitz's heart is not really in the game, so they make a pact: Chris, who adopts the pseudonym Avi Rosenberg, will teach Adam how to cruise for greater success, and Adam will teach his Irish Catholic pal how to be a believable Jew.

Forget about the 12 tribes of Israel; Jewtopia divides young Jewish singles into four categories fit for a Hebrew Spice Girls group -- clubby, arty, sporty, and orthodox. Some of these types are more sharply observed than others. Fogel and Wolfson deliver an unexpectedly current "Club Jew," a pop-cultural heir of the Beastie Boys, but their "Art Jew" is stuck somewhere in the Reagan era. The duo later sends up the new anti-assimilation wave of Jewish pride with a hilarious one-liner about Hasidic women: "Crown Heights is Pussy Central!" But has anyone ever met the supposedly ubiquitous "Sport Jew" who chugs brew from a hard hat?

Like the plot, the comedy is uneven -- but the laughs ultimately win out. At one point, Chris tries to bargain the rabbi down on pricey membership dues to the synagogue and inadvertently offends him with a string of comments about Jewish spending habits. The show then skewers bigotry within the tribe via a pointed appraisal of the derogatory Yiddish word for black people and the startled reaction from the Lipschitz family when their little boy walks into Passover dinner with his Mongolian girlfriend (Irina Pantaeva). The creators are more content to make circumcision jokes than to wrestle with the concerns of modern Jewry, which is fine by this critic. They leave no stereotype unturned, and at one point even bring out a Top 10 list to ensure that none falls through the cracks.

Bryan Fogel's dry delivery of Chris's lines makes Jerry Seinfeld seem expressive; this makes Fogel the natural straight man to Sam Wolfson, who indulges in histrionics as Adam. Tony n' Tina alum Jackie Tohn plays several "Crazy Jewish Girls" with all the nuance of the Ana Gasteyer school of acting. Cheryl David, Lorry Goldman, Irini Pantaeva, and Gerry Vichi are all game for this ethnic vaudeville and are perfectly cast. John Tillinger has directed the show in an appropriately broad manner. The Wolfson-Fogel tag team may not have the satirical daring of Mel Brooks, the keen observations of Woody Allen, or the potty mouths Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but they're Hebrew School class clowns that the whole family can enjoy.

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