Story: You want a story? There is no story, per se. This one-act comedy consists primarily of five performers delivering old jokes, new jokes, clever jokes, silly jokes, risqué jokes and a few unfunny jokes as they ‘work the room’ for yuks and lots o’ smiles while entertaining their audience.
Highlights: New Jewish Theatre artistic director Kathleen Sitzer is presenting the first professionally licensed production of this more or less stand-up routine since its New York City Off-Broadway version ran from May 2012 to September 2013.
Like that presentation, which was inspired by a web site called www.OldJewsTellingJokes.com, the New Jewish Theatre version steers away from video clips of non-actors reciting favorite jokes. Instead, it wisely utilizes the clever comic talents of a quintet of performers under the direction of NJT artistic associate Edward Coffield for a fun-filled finale to the 2013-14 season.
Other Info: Calling Old Jews Telling Jokes a play is a stretch, because it isn’t really a conventional comedy at all. It’s simply an ongoing string of jokes, essentially a stand-up routine delivered by Coffield’s capable quintet that bunches humorous one-liners or slightly longer bits of amusement by categories such as marriage, vacation, families, etc.
The 90 minutes of mischievous malarkey is interrupted on five different occasions when each of the players delivers a somewhat serious monologue on his/her own background and subsequent approach to humor. Unfortunately, these moments add very little to the evening, as they tend to be maudlin, sappy or annoying. They do, however, succeed in extending the show’s running time to 90 minutes, without intermission.
Only Bobby Miller appears as a ‘character,’ as an elderly Jewish gentleman named Nathan playing with his omnipresent cigar while regaling the audience with his share of amusing asides. He has the second-best joke of the evening, about a pickle slicer, which Miller delivers drolly with his classy, comic delivery.
The other four performers -- Dave Cooperstein as Reuben, Johanna Elkhana-Hale as Debbi, Craig Neuman as Morty and Stellie Siteman as Bunny -- are, like Miller, not ‘old’ at all, albeit Jewish and dressed in comfortable attire, including Neuman’s orange socks, offered up by costume designer Michele Friedman Siler.
Each of them shines maneuvering through a smorgasbord of yuks, with Cooperstein deftly delivering the show’s very best joke (to my subjective ears), about a ‘talking’ dog. They also do a bit of song and dance from time to time, with Miller showing why he hasn’t appeared in too many musicals in his illustrious career, or maybe his character just has too deep a voice to easily discern. In any event, the tunes are mirthful, such as a witty tidbit on fabulous Jewish vacation destinations.
Kudos to scenic and projection designers Peter & Margery Spack for the kitschy set that is dominated by tacky cardboard TVs, overblown radio dials, a Gotham skyline and a giant, up-to-date front page of The New Jewish Times, with photos of famous Jewish comics adorning sundry walls. Nathan Schroeder adds lighting and Jenny Smith furnishes several amusing props.
Coffield keeps it all running smoothly enough, although he couldn’t do anything with the few jokes that fell flat and elicited nary a response from the sold-out audience on opening night. In the best tradition of Henny Youngman, though, the best way to follow a dud is with a rapid-fire succession of funny one-liners, which this cast handles with aplomb.
If, like me, you’re partial to Mr. Youngman and his upbeat approach to humor, you’re likely to be laughing until you cry at several of these silly shenanigans. And, if Coffield’s cast agrees with the show business maxim that “Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” they nonetheless are so adept at milking a line or 12 that you may definitely appreciate how funny they truly are.
Play: Old Jews Telling Jokes
Company: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: May 14, 15, 17, 18, 21, 22, 24, 25, 28, 29, 31, June 1
Tickets: $37-$41; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb