Friday, October 24, 2014

'Old Jews Telling Jokes': Phoenix Theatre gets them for you wholesale

Rich Komenich (from left), Sara Riemen, Daniel Scharbrough, Adrienne Reiswerg, Eric J. Olson.
One thing is indisputable: the Phoenix Theatre's new production in its comedy-oriented season has the most marketable truth-in-labeling title of a local show since Theatre on the Square's "Naked Boys Singing" of two seasons back.

"Old Jews Telling Jokes" — OK, maybe the first two words don't apply 100 percent to the five-person cast —  opened Thursday night in the cabaret-style Basile Theatre. The underground setting is perfect for belly laughs to rock the foundations of the conclusively deconsecrated church the Phoenix calls home.

Since the Borscht Belt and vaudeville heritage went national in television's golden age, there have been  two iconic figures in American Jewish humor: George Jessel and Milton Berle.

Not the most talented of a distinguished lot, Jessel and Berle each stood for two characteristics that established their genre as folklore.  Jessel represented the ancient provenance of so many jokes — his name became a variety-show laugh line for their longevity. Berle, dubbed "Mr. Television" in the early '50s, was also famous for "stealing" jokes, a practice so general that Berle's thievery could readily be exaggerated and worn as a badge of honor. What Jack Benny was to stinginess, Berle was to humor larceny.

I'm guessing the gags that writers Daniel Okrent and Peter Gethers pack in like a rush-hour subway car wear both characteristics proudly. Some of them might be new, I'll concede. The old wedding-gift formula probably applies: They are old, new, borrowed and — most certainly — blue.

The latter category may put off a few potential visitors to "Old Jews Telling Jokes," directed fluidly and imaginatively by Bryan Fonseca. But anyone who's been to a comedy club recently will simply get here a better appreciation of where so much raunchy humor comes from and why a willingness to administer shocks is the lifeblood of laughter.

"Old Jews Telling Jokes" isn't f-bomb-dependent humor, on the whole, though what was once called unprintable comes in handy,  as when a curious kid played by Sara Riemen follows up the classic answer to "where do babies come from?'" with a precocious follow-up question all her own.

Each cast member is given a monologue under a character name to help anchor the yuks to reality. These are nostalgic, tender moments linked to the experience of humor in Jewish families and, by extension, all families with some urban American experience.

And the show contains some brilliant solo turns among a vast collection of two- and three-person dialogues and narratives. One emblazoned in my memory on opening night Thursday was introduced as a famous song no Jew should ever sing: Daniel Scharbrough entered the stage in Orthodox garb, including side curls and a black hat, to kvetch his way through "Old Man River," turning the Show Boat showcase for a black bass-baritone into a monologue on life's unfairness. This would have been too edgy for national broadcast, but the send-up certainly draws on the hallowed tradition of TV's Sid Caesar. Scharbrough displayed a gift for conveying sour disgust reminiscent of that genius comedian.

The production is dotted with a few original songs, one of them a sing-along with lyrics projected so that everyone can sing about spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica, with similar rhyming destinations for other Jewish holidays. Eric J. Olson introduced the number with infectious razzmatazz.

The cast was blessedly free of caricatured Lower East Side speech patterns, but Adrienne Reiswerg dependably had the pacing and inflection of Jewish talk subtly applied to brief portrayals of different sorts of Jewish women, chiefly wives and mothers. These women, with younger versions capably given voice and embodied by Riemen, tend not to cut their men much slack on the domestic front.

The men's arena for exercising their competitive wiles and instincts is the outside world. They learn young: Scharbrough's schoolboy gets a lollipop from a gentile teacher for saying "Jesus Christ" in answer to her question asking pupils to name the greatest man ever.  "I know and you know the answer is Moses," he explains later to his classmates, "but business is business."

Male competitiveness extends to desert-island scenarios and bedroom activity. It's a more important fantasy for a Jewish castaway to brag to an imaginary rival about a beautiful celebrity's being washed up onshore than to enjoy the pleasure she offers first-hand. Another joke has a husband ready to ignore being an eyewitness to his wife's adultery with a triumphant "THAT's how you wave a towel" directed at the man who's just cuckolded him. (The set-up to this line doesn't permit easy explanation.)

Rich Komenich, the cast's fifth member, seemed most at home in his monologue and when he could work variations on a hypochondriac or a genuinely ill man facing such a rejection of his last wishes as not getting a piece of freshly baked date cake because his wife is saving it for the shiva.  From his previous work with Phoenix, it's clear Komenich is best in long-form characterizations, where he can blaze an arc like nobody's business. In this show's premiere,  he seemed ill-at-ease in the songs and occasionally in the short jokes.

For all its unalloyed fun, "Old Jews Telling Jokes" recalls not only the anxiety of everyday life but also the anxiety of the comics who struggled and sometimes succeeded at making people laugh. I remember being at a Milton Berle show when he started telling a joke about a man going to a proctologist.  Clearly the word "proctologist" itself was intended as a laugh line, but the audience response was muted. Berle looked down at an apparently unsmiling man in the front row and said sneeringly: "Ask your wife what that is — she'll explain it to you."

Berle's humor was of a type that worked incredibly hard, that teased the audience unmercifully, goading it into laughter when not enough of it was coming up spontaneously. No wonder he and his colleagues had to steal jokes, and no wonder it was necessary to joke about stealing jokes. Everything was on the table.

Barbs aimed by comedians at themselves also had to be redirected outward. That's why the genre never ran out of material. Style, bravura, timing, and persistence could put anything across — old, new, borrowed, and blue. It had its folkloric origins and complex Jewish-American experience to draw upon. Being funny had to be aspirational when it missed being actual, and the line had to be blurred.

That's the edgy, uproarious world of "Old Jews Telling Jokes."