Review: Just for Us Defangs America’s Greatest Existential Threat With Jewish Humor

Alex Edelman brings his solo comedy show about crashing a neo-Nazi meeting to Broadway.

Alex Edelman in Just for Us on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre
(© Matthew Murphy)

Alex Edelman lives out a liberal fantasy eight times a week on the stage of the Hudson Theatre. Well, two. There’s the one where he recounts his self-labeled “good-boy” experiment in reaching across the ideological aisle by infiltrating a meeting of white supremacists. And then there’s the one where he gets to witness his David-sized comedy show, against all odds, conquer the Goliath of Broadway.

Just for Us, a hybrid of stand-up and theater — a genre mastered by one of Edelman’s mentors, Mike Birbiglia — comes to Broadway following an extended off-Broadway run and a successful stint in London (his director and collaborator Adam Brace sadly and unexpectedly passed away in April). As a comic whose humor is self-admittedly apolitical and barely works beyond New York City’s Upper West Side (his words, not mine), Edelman’s small step outside his typical fare has made for comedy lightning in a bottle. And it is a small step at that.

While the hook of Just for Us is indeed the promise of hearing about an Orthodox Jew’s run-in with a group of neo-Nazis, the highlights of Edelman’s quick-moving 75-minute set are his adjacent anecdotes: The story of his Yeshiva-educated family’s brush with Christmas; the bit about his brother’s stint on Israel’s Olympic skeleton team; a tour through the many richly semitic names on his family tree. By now, you can probably understand why Edelman marks his target audience as the characters in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. His Jewish identity is essential to who he is and equally essential to his comedy, which elicits plenty of knowing guffaws from fellow members of the tribe who share niche experiences. But to borrow from his own title, Edelman’s comedy is not just for us.

Here is where the art of theater and storytelling takes hold in Edleman’s finely crafted show. His narrative begins on Twitter — where most ill-advised choices are made. After receiving a swell of thoughtless hate, Edelman ironically assembles his own Twitter list of antisemites, which brings to his feed an open invitation to a white supremacist meeting in Queens. Whether born from a desire for fresh comedy material, an understandable bout of mid-2017 mania, or a sincere belief that peace is made one KKK chapter at a time, Edelman decides to attend the meeting and look his faceless villains in the eye.

What follows is a hilarious and astute interrogation of the concept of whiteness. Edelman, who grew up admiring the glow of the classically white WASP, still possesses the audacity of the classically white male as he fearlessly saunters over to the Nazi snack table and flirts with a cute bigot named Chelsea. Does that blithe confidence qualify him as an official white? Or does his lack of Santa Claus know-how preclude him from the title? As we mull over that inane question, Edelman snatches the proverbial hoods off today’s most looming monsters. One is a puzzle fanatic with no puzzling skills to speak of. Another struggles to develop a social media strategy to spread the word of white excellence. And another makes a clumsy attempt at skull-and-bones-style anonymity with an embarrassing code name.

In a moment in time when we’re constantly prodded with fear and earnest pleas about love and empathy, Just for Us reminds us of humanity’s silliest tendencies — which are also mercifully toothless. There’s Edelman’s own hubris, thinking he could out-charm antisemitism (he is quite charming so he was probably the Jews’ best bet). And there’s our terrifying vision of the neo-Nazism movement, which in reality, may just be handfuls of technologically illiterate racists who complain about Meghan Markle over instant coffee and grocery store muffins. Timeliness, relevance, and all those other political buzzwords are likely the initial draw of a show like Just for Us. But its success is owed to the respite from existential angst it miraculously finds in the belly of the beast.