Mark Taper Forum
Standup comedian Alex Edelman is one of the most distinct and unique voices to emerge on the scene since the late Robin Williams.
In the special engagement in the shuttered Mark Taper Forum, presented as part of Center Theatre Group’s CTG:FWD, a new initiative created by Artistic Director Snehal Desai and funded in part by special artistic discretionary funds that were raised to be used on special programming, Edelman's hilarious and perfectly timed Obie-winning and New York Times Critics’ Pick solo show Just for Us, that timing nearly cost him the opportunity to share it with us thanks to the current crisis in the Middle East.
There were serious discussions about postponing the LA resident’s two-week run here considering the tensions and humanitarian horrors weighing on everyone’s mind right now, Edelman admits at the start on his opening night here. “Lucky me,” he quips with more than a soupçon of sardonicism.
Still, the words of John Updike, who once noted that “sometimes the work you do can find itself in conversation with the times you live in,” helped Edelman and CTG to decide to move forward—albeit with security guards and walk-through metal detectors stationed outside the Taper’s entrance.
See, as a secular Jew, most of Edelman’s humor revolves around his upbringing in a very conservative family in Boston, a place where rampant racism while he was growing up was the norm and being anything but white for anyone wasn’t easy there “between the 15th century and 1981.”
Raised in a particularly ethnic and racially-intolerant area of Boston (“called Boston,” he adds), his family worked hard to help their three sons understand the history of their ancestral struggles, but not without also teaching empathy. This was something that led his mother, despite his father’s vehement objections, to one year create a Christmas celebration for a non-Jewish friend left alone in the world that opened Edelman’s young mind to a whole new set of traditions he never knew existed.
This is perhaps what first fostered his curiosity that one day, during his time living in Manhattan, made him decide to take his inquisitiveness one step too far. When he found a string of antisemitic rants crowding his social media feed after a post meant to promote the opposite reaction, he decided to accept an invitation inviting new members to attend a white supremacist “nerf nazi” support group meeting.
Despite a good friend’s dire warning that he might be taking his life in his hands, Edelman decided to head to the event—not in “Arkanssippi,” mind you, but in Queens, New York.
I personally identified with his need to understand why he was hated without much basis besides blame for the death of a fantasy deity over 2,000 years ago, although for me, as someone growing up with a small Danish nose and a shock of blond hair, I was privy to many ugly comments made against Jews in my presence that as a kid always encouraged the scrappy side of me to raise an index finger and say, “Excuse me, but…”
Edelman’s bravery humbles me, especially after last month when I made the decision, as global conflicts escalate and university campuses reveal their long-suppressed bigotry, to leave my ever-present Star of David pendant at home in a drawer while traveling to teach in Spain. I like my head right where it sits, you see.
Still, sitting in rapt attention listening to Edelman’s tale, my own choice to go into minor hiding bothered me greatly, a feeling exacerbated by the storyteller as he recounted climbing those potentially ominous stairs to a nondescript third floor apartment and soon finding irony in snacking on “whites-only” muffins.
His memories of that night—which indeed ended up a tad more than scary—are the basis for Just for Us, but his “overmedicated ADHD generation” stream-of-consciousness performance takes many side trips along the way, all fueled by his frenzied energy and constant, seemingly exhausting physicality that leaves him jumping around the Taper stage like a jackrabbit on speed.
Several times, Edelman evokes the memory of the lategreat Robin Williams, including the fact that when ASL-savvy Koko the gorilla was told of the comedian’s passing in 2014, he signed to his handlers that he was genuinely sad. If Koko could “cross the species barrier,” Edelman conjectures, why shouldn’t a “distinctly unfamous” comedian try to connect and try to understand the motives of this Queens-based band of deluded good ol’ boys?
It’s interesting that Edelman should mention Williams and wax nostalgic about the comic legend’s signature genius, because there’s something very similar about what we see unfold on the Taper stage. Not that Edelman’s work is anything directly conjuring his idol’s, only that his delivery is as totally unique and individual to him as Williams’ was to him.
Under the direction of his late decade-long creative partner Adam Brace, who passed away suddenly a few weeks before Just for Us debuted on Broadway, Edelman navigates and almost instantly commands the stage as his own from early on, almost turning cartwheels in excitement on a manic mission to make us all buy into his quirky delivery and understand his passionate, hilarious spin on life. He tells us he was someone who, as a kid, was tested for autism numerous times and how it shocked his mother when doctors found nothing wrong with him.
If ever I felt I was experiencing the first sparks of what will surely be a long and celebrated career, sitting in the audience of Just for Us gave me the sense that theatrical history was in the making before my very eyes.
“Bringing up politics changes the vibe,” he warns us, and although the laughs here are nonstop, the message is crystal clear: without each of us trying to empathize with and be compassionate towards one another in this terrifyingly confusing and brutal world, we’re basically all fucked. This is of course a traditional Jewish concept that, aside from the aggressively twisted machinations of the monster currently leading the state of Israel, is desperately needed right about now.
“As a Los Angeles resident,” Edelman notes, “it’s special that I get to do this show in the place where it was incubated. I performed the show in public for the first time at a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant, Âu Lạc LA, just a two-minute walk away from the Taper, and so to be able to elevate the show from that little café space to the best performing space in Los Angeles is really beautiful to me.”
And it’s an unexpected and incredibly rare treat for us too, to have Just for Us here—although sadly only for such a short run when everyone in our community should see it, both to relieve the tension of our current world situation and to be able to laugh at ourselves and our concerned but too often helpless place in it all.
Alex Edelman definitely feels the love, offering humble thanks to the enthusiastic opening night crowd for coming out and enduring the metal detectors to see him work. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it,” he writes in his program notes, as he relishes the serendipitous opportunity to perform his solo show in a place surrounded by a moat.
THROUGH DEC. 23: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org