By Pat Launer
“There’s times when it’s kosher for Jews to be a ham.” So goes a (somewhat lame and questionably grammatical) lyric in one of the goofy songs in the Lyceum show called “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” Okay, they aren’t all ‘old.’ There are two young Jews (one of whom isn’t actually Jewish… but who’s quibbling? Jews are! Always).
Anyway, if any of the following sounds familiar to you (i.e., if you can fill in the jokes that go with these punchlines), you’ve either been to the Borscht Belt, or watched a lot of ‘50s TV, Or maybe you have a joke-telling friend like me (who spent summers in the vicinity of the Borscht Belt and knows all the routines).
I make a living. It’s for the shiva. Up until now, everything’s been okay. He had a hat. Force yourself. This one’s eating my popcorn.
I’ve been telling these groaners for decades (though some are frankly hilarious, if you like that kind of thing – and judging by the full house on opening night, lots of people do, Jewish or not). It’s all in the delivery. And the five performers in this comedy revue can deliver. As they say in show biz, timing is everything, and director John Anderson keeps the pace at a rat-a-tat clip that significantly reduces the groan-factor, forcing you to listen up so you can catch the next gag catapulting at you.
Actually, some of the most time-worn jokes have been tweaked a bit. I always remember the mother telling her son: “Don’t masturbate; you’ll go blind.” To which he replies, “Can’t I just do it till I need glasses?” Here, the snarky son turns the trick around. The father tells his busy offspring he’ll go blind, and the kid, freeing his hands to gesticulate, says, “Dad, I’m over here!”
This supremely silly diversion was created by Daniel Okrent and Peter Gethers, based on the website of the same name (the “old” Jews on that site, it should be noted, are in their 60s!). Structurally, the show is divided into life cycle segments (projected on a screen behind the bare-bones stage setup: a few chairs and a sofa). There’s Birth, Courtship, Marriage and Death (the latter two often equated in these japes), with a stop along the way for Doctors (you can’t have a Jewish show without doctors). Only lawyers get a pass. But we all know that lawyers are Jewish boys who can’t stand the sight of blood.
G. Bartell (who also doubles as sometime piano-player) has by far the best way with a Yiddish accent. John Rosen is ideal as the zhlubby hubby. Rhona Gold plays the meddler, shrew or kvetch (read: Jewish wife/mother/grandma). Representing the younger generation, Bryan Charles Feldman is a funny kibitzer and Allison Spratt Pearce (no more Jewish than her name) is a terrific comic who, with a brown wig and a foul mouth, is a non-stop hoot.
The costumes (Anastasia Pautova) are a cross between enigmatic and absurd. Which shtetl did those garish colors and oddball styles and matchups come from?
The best song of the evening – by a long shot – is Tom Lehrer’s “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” which should certainly be credited somewhere. No one can beat his clever lyrics (“Here’s to Judas Maccabeus/ Boy, if he could only see us”). And one small nitpick about the Yiddishisms: Someone uses the word kishkes and pats his bottom. Um, kishkes (like the dish named for them, aka stuffed derma) are intestines, which usually are indicated in the frontal section of the anatomy.
But overall, no major complaints from this quarter. Though I was sorry they missed one of my favorites:
“Waiter to table full of Jewish women: Is anything all right?”
A drummer would be kept busy with the unremitting rim-shots.
It’s all in good fun. No depth or great insights here (unless you don’t know any Jews, or anything about them, in which case, what are you doing at this show??).
So, go. You’ll get a chuckle. Maybe before or after, you’ll get a nosh. And even if you don’t laugh your kishkes out, you’ll probably get some new dinner-table material. Remember the Jewish credo: ‘Walk softly and carry a big shtick.’
- “Old Jews Telling Jokes” runs through May 25 at the Lyceum Theatre Space in Horton Plaza
- Performances are Wednesday-Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 6 p.m.; matinees Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
- Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
- Tickets ($45-$65) are available at 619-544-1000 or online at www.lyceumevents.org
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.