A comedy of stereotypes
Despite its charming actors, 'Jewtopia' makes a shallow, predictable trip into Jewish cultural waters
Two dudes are cruising the synagogue singles mixer when an attractive young lady ambles by. Fixing her with their sexiest come-hither looks, the men shoot off a surefire "Sha-LOM!" and expect her to melt on the spot. She barely turns her head, and the men can hardly understand why.
And there you have the trouble with "Jewtopia," a crass comedy so full of tired stereotypes that you almost feel guilty when the jokes are actually funny. It wants desperately to be noticed and tries way too hard.
Presented as the season-closer for the Palo Alto Players, "Jewtopia" lacks sophistication, so there's nothing smart embedded in this silly comedy, nor is it edgy enough to take any real risks with its jokes, most of which are about being Jewish. So what you end up with is a middling two-hour-plus show that elicits more kvetching than kvelling.
How you react to a comedy of stereotypes like this one depends a lot on your point of view. So in the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you I'm not Jewish, but I did marry into the faith. I know from a Passover Seder and can discuss "Yentl" like a Talmudic scholar. I have a deep love and respect for Jewish culture, especially the comedy. That Jews, over the centuries, have been through so much and can still laugh at themselves and the world has always amazed and impressed me.
Writers Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson make a shallow, predictable trip into Jewish cultural waters. That's especially disappointing when the material they had to work with is so rich. As underemployed actors in Los Angeles, Fogel and Wolfson created a sketch about a Jewish guy pressured by his parents into marrying a nice Jewish girl when he's really attracted to gentile girls, and about his Irish-Catholic friend who's so enamored of Jewish girls that he fakes his way as a Jew to get into their good graces.
The writers expanded that sketch into a full-blown play, which explains why they have about 15 minutes of plot stretched over an implausible, intermittently amusing couple of hours. The play became one of the longest-running shows in Los Angeles history and went on to see productions across the country.
Clearly aimed at a Jewish audience, "Jewtopia" follows 30ish Adam Lipshitz (Brandon Silberstein) and Chris O'Connell (Lance Fuller) as they attempt to woo Jewish women online under the auspices of JDate. That Adam could reach age 30 in the 21st century and not have been exposed to JDate is one of many implausibilities here.
We laugh as the non-Jew Chris teaches the "bad Jew" Adam, as he describes himself, to alter his personality to attract a different kind of Jewish girl. There's Club Jew with the gold chain and perpetual sunglasses. There's sensitive Art Jew, with the army jacket and John Lennon glasses; Sports Jew with the baseball cap; and Jew Jew with the trappings of the Hasidim.
Never mind that Adam might want to actually attract a potential mate displaying some semblance of his actual personality. But that would just be reality, not comedy, where the potential dates have "hilarious" online names like Firetushy, Chop Jewy and Jewbacca. Adam isn't a three-dimensional person so much as a bundle of neuroses. He had a traumatic bar mitzvah because, as he recalls, he wasn't ready to be a man. And clearly he still isn't.
Other than being the son of a Marine who didn't get enough love in his childhood, Chris isn't much more rounded. He says he loves Jewish girls because they make all his decisions for him. Now there's the basis for a solid marriage. Chris' love of Judaism, to his credit, deepens as he gets to know more about it to the point that he wants to convert and — here's grist for the comedy mill — get circumcised. But the character is also forced to do totally unbelievable things like use the expression "Jew you down" in front of a rabbi. Oy.
The effort to get laughs involves a log of negativity pointed at the Jews: the women are overbearing, the men don't know how to use tools, Passover food is horrible, Jewish girls don't put out, everyone's a neurotic mess, and you never order anything the way it appears on a menu (OK, in my personal experience, that last one's true).
As this is a comedy, you don't expect "Jewtopia" to revel in things the Jews do well, like build families, value education and culture, and connect with God on a deeply spiritual level. Granted, none of that is terribly funny stuff, though Adam finally finds a girlfriend who gives those things a merciful shout-out.
Think of Jackie Mason by way of Jon Stewart filtered through "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and you'll get the loose, ambling thrust of "Jewtopia," which needs a firmer comic guide than director Jimmy Gunn provides.
Stars Fuller and Silberstein have a terrifically appealing camaraderie, and their ability to have fun with the material, even at its most grating, counts for a whole lot. This show could be torture without actors of their charm and comic energy.
The lively supporting cast — Katie Anderson, Kate Tran, Alexandra Bogorad, Mark Rosen and Al Abraham — plays assorted Jewish mothers, rabbis and potential dates with the assistance of Rande Harris' wigs and Mary Cravens' costumes.
It's not that "Jewtopia" is offensive. It just revels in stereotypes without bringing anything particularly fresh or outrageously funny to the party. My favorite part of the show actually came in sound designer George Mauro's soundtrack when Tom Jones was suddenly blaring "My Yiddishe Mama." Now that's comedy.
What: "Jewtopia," a play by Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through June 27, with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sundays.
Cost: Tickets are $30, with student and senior discounts available.
Info: Go to www.paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.