Comedian Alex Edelman's wit wins the day against a white supremacist group in 'Just for Us'

Alex Edelman brings his Broadway-bound show, "Just for Us," to Boston. (Courtesy Emilio Madrid)
Alex Edelman brings his Broadway-bound show, "Just for Us," to Boston. (Courtesy Emilio Madrid)

Alex Edelman’s eyes widen — with surprise, mischief, humor, naivete — as he spins his enchanting tale “Just for Us” at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Roberts Studio Theatre through May 23.

Although he describes himself as a comedian who loves “dumb and silly jokes” and works as a writer for a BBC radio show “no one listens to,” his self-deprecating comments belie his extraordinary skill as a writer and performer. The fact that this Brookline native, raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, brings his wide-eyed enthusiasm to a meeting of White Nationalists in Queens, New York, becomes a dramatic journey into identity, assumptions and the strange state of our national culture today.

Like the best storytellers, Edelman weaves a tightly constructed story cloth decorated with vivid highlights, including introducing himself with a stand-up comedy routine extolling the virtues of the late comedian Robin Williams’ ability to connect with a gorilla named Koko. At first these highlights seem like asides, amusing anecdotes dropped in for a chuckle, but Edelman deftly stitches every fun fact, childhood memory and personal experience into a powerful evening in the theater.

The focus of “Just for Us,” which is going to Broadway in late June for nine weeks, is Edelman’s decision to respond to an invitation to attend a public meeting of White Nationalists. Foolhardy, perhaps, but Edelman explains that as a comic, his job is to make audiences like him. The fact that this particularly intimate audience, in someone’s living room apartment, has clearly identified Edelman’s ethnic community as responsible for the assault on their superiority, may give him pause, but just makes him want to work harder to win them over.

Alex Edelman stages a meeting between him and a group of white supremacists in "Just for Us" at the Calderwood Plaza. (Courtesy Teresa Castracane)
Alex Edelman stages a meeting between him and a group of white supremacists in "Just for Us" at the Calderwood Plaza. (Courtesy Teresa Castracane)

Edelman’s descriptions of the characters in this scene of “weapons-grade antisemitism” — including an older woman working on an impossibly large jigsaw puzzle; a young woman named Chelsea who figures in Edelman’s rom-com fantasy (“hey,” he shrugs, “you never know”); and Cortez, an attendee who remains suspicious of Edelman — manage to be equally hilarious and terrifying. While Edelman watches the group nod in agreement about such shocking events as the marriage of Meghan and Harry and the erasure of white men, he searches for a way in, offering his “expertise” on the “meaningful content” social media algorithm. By the time the group is ready to take a 10-minute break, Edelman feels a sense of triumph: “Am I the hero we need in these difficult and challenging times?”

But don’t think for a moment that Edelman’s sense of superiority lasts for more than a hot second. Early in the evening, he explains that he doesn’t do political comedy because “it bums people out.” He quickly shifts from empathizing with this group’s feeling that they are powerless and voiceless to his memory of his own family’s efforts at empathy, in which the Orthodox Edelmans celebrated Christmas (including stockings hung over the fireplace — with Alex and his brother’s names in Hebrew, natch), to comfort a grieving family friend, who also happened to be a WASP.

Director Adam Brace wisely uses the mostly bare space to frame, but not contain Edelman’s exuberant performance. Bar stools are added and then subtracted to represent the meeting attendees, and Edelman employs his loose-limbed movements to communicate both nervous energy and an easy comfort on stage. But it’s the fluid intersection of the writing and the telling that make “Just for Us” so memorable.

Edelman’s honesty is both disarming and engaging, whether he’s explaining how his Jewishness is essential to his identity (“Judaism is the Hotel California of religions,” he says) and his conviction that to a group of anti-Semites couldn’t possibly hate him if they got to know him. And, as someone steeped in more than a decade of Roman Catholic education, I laughed as loudly as the person next to me, who happened to be, like Edelman, a graduate of Maimonides High School in Brookline.

Edelman may not have the answer to healing our fractured nation, but starting with the title, “Just for Us,” he offers thoughtful reflections on our shared humanity, through a smart and hilarious lens.

Alex Edelman: Just for Us" is at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts through April 23. There is also a performance at the Emerson Colonial Theatre on May 20.



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