Not That Jewish
Rugrats Emmy winner Monica Piper explores the nature of Judaism in her new solo show.
Ardent fans of '90s television may recognize Monica Piper's name from the opening credits of shows like Roseanne and Mad About You, for which she served as a writer and story editor. Young adults taking nostalgia trips on Hulu could remember seeing it attached to cartoons including Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys, where she held similar responsibilities. Others might know her as a stand-up comic who had her own Showtime special. Now, after a sold-out 16-month run in Los Angeles, Piper is making her New York stage debut in her solo show, Not That Jewish, at New World Stages. Piper's acclaim and sheer reliability is likely why the show has come to the Big Apple, but Not That Jewish can't shake the feeling that it belongs more in a synagogue social hall than in a large off-Broadway house.
The inciting incident that opens Piper's show is the moment that, at age 7, a neighbor child told her she was "not that Jewish." This comment comes mostly because her family didn't belong to a house of worship or take part in High Holiday services. But it forces Piper to ask deeper questions throughout her life including, what does it really mean to be Jewish? Is it about spirituality, or is it what's in your soul?
As she attempts to figure out the answer, Piper takes us on a tour of her life. As the only daughter of two old-world, Bronx-born Jews, she began a career as an English teacher before veering into the world of stand-up. Along the way, she survived two marriages: one to a Gentile who didn't get her humor, the other to a musician-turned-drug-addict. She dealt with life as the single mother of an adopted son, a bout with breast cancer, and stints in the writers' room of several sitcoms and kids' shows, one of which earned her an Emmy.
Priding herself on her sense of humor, Piper's show is imbued with the spirit of hoary Borscht Belt tummlers, minus the rimshots. Her Old World-style jokes, just on the cusp of dirty, go down easy and earn friendly chuckles. But Piper's presentational style and director Mark Waldrop's artificial production undercuts the show's more emotional moments, wherein she recalls the death of her parents and the adoption of her son. They're still moving, but not as poignant as they could be if they were done without unnecessary movement or a constantly shifting light plot by Julie Duro.
While Piper may be a heimish host on this life tour, her story isn't as universal as other works of this nature. Ready-made for temple sisterhoods, Not That Jewish appeals to the kind of audience who pepper their everyday speech with occasional Yiddishisms and enjoy their pastrami lean. While that certainly defines some frequent theatergoers, it might not be nearly as many as Piper hopes.