Early in his stand-up show Just for Us Alex Edelman pays tribute to Robin Williams by telling the audience how the much-beloved entertainer’s 2014 death caused some strangely unnecessary interspecies sorrow. Not immediately apparent is the way this bit touches off considerations about empathy and its often painful limitations, but, as the veil steadily lifts, the constant laughs mix with deepening respect for Edelman’s larger intentions. Sure, like the best of the comedy-club set, Edelman knows how to deliver a punchline, brilliantly structure a routine with unexpected callbacks, and riff off unplanned audience interaction; to simply call him a comedian, though, misses a lot of his genius.
Despite the familiar visual trappings–mic stand, performer-blinding stage lights, and a dull curtain backdrop–Edelman’s deceptively free-flowing talents hew more towards the monologist Spalding Gray than those of Williams. Like Gray, Edelman is an entrancing storyteller capable of stitching together personal anecdotes into a rich thematic tapestry. In Just for Us his canvas includes mental pictures of growing up Orthodox Jewish in a Boston where white privilege is starkly stratified; his brother’s 2018 Winter Olympics participation as a member of the Israeli team in possibly the least athletic competition; witnessing the actions of a predictably conceited Jared Kushner at synagogue; and the touching time his family celebrated Christmas in order to console a bereaved non-Jewish friend.
All this autobiographical material, imparted with Edelman’s affable charm, underpins a central remembrance: when Edelman’s righteous social media trolling of anti-Semitic tweeters turned into his attendance at a far-right meeting in a Queens apartment. Yes, hilarity ensues! Mostly, it stems from Edelman concealing his religious identity while also admitting to a misplaced desire for the others at the gathering to like him, especially a comely neo-Nazi wannabe around his own age. A few of the biggest laughs come from Edelman imagining their relationship as a progressively ridiculous series of rom-com tropes.
But Edelman’s audacity doesn’t stop at questionable, potentially dangerous, sojourns to the outer boroughs. After risking his physical safety on a seeming whim, he uses Just for Us to turn himself inside out for an explanation as to why he did it. And that’s where the show becomes much more than its jokes.
As Edelman notes, Judaism and other major world religions consider empathy to be an essential human endeavor. That’s obviously a much taller order when confronted with the unrepentantly bigoted, though Edelman thinks he’s bridging the divide during a hate-group circle. He is, sadly, mistaken, a point driven home when one of the attendees figures out Edelman’s secret.
After this cat is yanked out of the bag, Edelman still finds it a bit surprising that nobody wants him to stay, because, as with most people who get up on a stage for a living, he is a professional ingratiator. Being a tech-savvy millennial, too, this vocation even leads him to offer some advice to everyone who came out for violent revolution and pastries about how they could better utilize social media. Of course, Edelman only supports the free baked goods, but that’s the rub when you basically have made being liked your job: it’s hard to turn off that need.
Well-educated in both a secular and religious sense, Edelman musters all of his considerable smarts and morality to grapple with the vitriol directed at him by a roomful of strangers. He realizes that life’s disappointments frequently cause the pained to lash out at the blameless, a high-minded, sensitive assessment for which he congratulates himself. But Edelman is also mindful enough to acknowledge that virtue signaling might have been the point of his entire 7-train excursion or, as he more succinctly and self-mockingly puts it, “I’m a good boy.”
Unlike Gray, who often lost himself in his thoughts, Edelman’s own psyche is never far from his engagement with the world, but he’s not solipsistic. For Edelman who quips about being tested for autism 11 times, it appears he just has a lot of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual baggage to unpack. And he’s willing to do it in front of an audience, which, as the show proceeds, makes him more vulnerable to our judgments and, therefore, increasingly likable. Professional ingratiator that he is, Edelman recognizes how our feelings about him are changing and, instead of reveling in the adulation, issues a reminder that we don’t really know him. That sort of honesty from someone building a career off the illusion that we do might be even braver than having gone to that Queens apartment.
Alex Edelman: Just for Us (return engagement: June 13 – September 2, 2022)
Presented by Mike Birbiglia
Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.JustforUsShow.com
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes without an intermission