As I sat at the rear of the sold-out SoHo Playhouse—on Oscar night, yet!—I saw a sea of heads covered with yarmulkes, one of the most obvious distinguishers of Jewish men, making me think that Ashley Blaker: Goy Friendly, an often sardonic look at orthodox Jewry, was going to be preaching to the choir. Judging from the continual hoots and giggles from those gathered, my prediction was to be partially correct.
Throughout the show British-born Blaker riffs on the ridiculous beliefs gentiles have held about Jews. For instance, he begins the show announcing that all non-Jews (i.e. goys) in the audience will be forced to convert, displaying a slide of a scalpel, making his point very clearly, even suggesting that the men remove their pants to help the “conversions” go quicker! The subsequent foreskin jokes may have gone on a tad too long, but they produced a knowing guffaw or two.
Blaker, who converted to orthodoxy in his twenties, has toured Great Britain extensively with Imran Yusuf, an orthodox Muslim from Kenya, in a show called Prophet Sharing that highlighted both the differences and the similarities of the orthodox branches of each religion, a kind of circling the wagons against “the others,” which is a direct translation of “goy.” Yusuf is the catalyst for Goy Friendly which is Blaker’s way of responding to his curiosity about Judaism.
Blaker riffs on three main precepts of Orthodoxy and this becomes the substance of his rich monologue.
The first is the Orthodox Jew’s need to pray before eating or doing anything, the complexity of which is illustrated by a chart listing desserts, each of which are subject to different blessings. When it comes to a simple banana split, well, it turns out that each element has to be acknowledged, making the eating of it even more desirable.
Next is how distinctive orthodox men’s clothing is. Heads must be covered, hence the aforementioned yarmulke. Even in that simple headgear there is complexity. Some sects require a border on this headpiece and others don’t: do not dare to try to enter your yeshiva wearing the wrong skullcap. Other than always wearing white and black only, the religious man must wear tzitzis, a string vest worn under the shirt with its lose strings showing down the pants legs. The lesson in proper dress is long and complex.
The third and most distressing precept is how women are made to be virtually invisible. Blaker shows Jewish publications in which women’s faces are literally missing or distorted to avoid recognition. Although Blaker finds mirth in this, he also can’t hide the sadness.
Blaker nervously flirts with calling the traditions he examines foolish or arbitrary, yet he bases his entire act on making the audience laugh at them. He also never distinguishes between orthodox, ultra-orthodox and Hassidic Jewry even though his illustrations show participants of all three levels.
He does do a funny bit called the Jew-o-Meter in which he acknowledges himself as the Super-Jew, Larry David as a Jew, Simon Cowell as an isn’t-but-could-be-Jew and ending the comparison with the as-far-away-from-Jewish Mel Gibson!
Blaker is a fine monologist, knowing exactly how to pace his acting and exactly how to put over a joke as if he is speaking directly to each audience member.
He is helped by Brandon Bogle’s lighting that seemingly instinctively brought out all the best of Steve Ullathorne’s slides and unencumbered stage design. Summer Hyde devised a simple, clean informal outfit for Blaker that was neither Jewish nor non-Jewish.
Matt Roper directed the show with a eye toward its inner rhythms and flow.
Goy Friendly is clearly meant as a light entertainment with lecture-demonstration components and succeeds as such. It’s delightful spending time with this superb raconteur, even if he cleverly sidesteps the deeper implications of his subject matter.
Ashley Blaker: Goy Friendly (through February 23, 2020)
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-691-1555 or visit http://www.SoHoPlayhouse.com
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission