'Alex Edelman: Just For Us' review — a whipsmart blend of personal and political comedy

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

You might not think that Koko the Gorilla, who died in 2018, would take an interest in the death four years earlier of that fellow Californian, Robin Williams.

That tidbit of information comes from the fast-talking Alex Edelman, the sensationally funny and also moving monologist whose well-travelled and wonderful show Just for Us is about an even stranger convergence: the participation of Edelman, an Orthodox Jew, at a meeting of white supremacists in the New York City borough of Queens. (That’s where Donald Trump had his childhood home which, in context, is in no way surprising.)

What do you do, therefore, when you find yourself at an event that isn’t remotely for you? In Edelman’s case, you partake of a “whites only muffin”, flirt with a woman called Chelsea who has clearly drunk the hateful Kool-Aid, and, crucially, know when and how to make an exit.

Some while after the fact, you then transform the experience into a show that has had multiple homes over the years (a prior run at the Soho Theatre included) and that sits beautifully at the Menier, where it already looks to be a highlight of this new theatrical year.

Edelman, a 33-year-old Bostonian, has been produced Stateside by Mike Birbiglia, the actor-storyteller a decade Edelman’s senior who also locates within life’s absurdities material for meditations on topics that spring forth in every direction.

In Edelman’s case, his commingling with the enemy widens into a take-no-prisoners solo narrative that sweeps up issues of health, family, and sexuality into a prismatic experience, directed at breakneck speed by Adam Brace. This same director is responsible for Liz Kingsman’s latest show across town and for yet another theatrical performance cut from comparable cloth – Haley McGee’s Age Is a Feeling, which completes a trifecta of sorts for Brace at the Soho Theatre next month.

What’s astonishing about Edelman is his ability to shift moods on a dime, and even to risk a Holocaust-adjacent joke about “the trains” that prompted a gasp on opening night. Born into a religious family in which he seems a “lapsed Quaker” by comparison, the actor ponders assimilationist verities that range from the shortening of his full name to musings on white privilege and what it means to come from “this really racist part of Boston called Boston”.

Encouraged, he tells us, to brave entry into the political fray, Edelman is the first to acknowledge that politics can be a conversation-killer, the responsibility of the artist to engage be damned. And yet, it’s not long before he is off on the #7 subway train to Queens. Upon arrival, he is admitted into a gathering of very much non-likeminded folk who form “an anti-semi-circle”, the prevailing anti-Semitism hovering portentously in the air.

The evening can be gut-bustingly funny, whether Edelman riffs on his brother’s Olympic prowess or on a dynamic between his parents that more than once allows his mum the last word. But there’s pathos, as well, in his account of a Gentile family friend who comes to the Edelmans for Christmas to get away from her own grief, only to wreak havoc within an observant Jewish household that isn’t used to Christmas stockings and trees and leaving out cookies for Santa.

You sense the rage at the online bigotry which in turn prompts Edelman to conjoin his detractors into a Twitter collective known as the Jewish National Fund Contributors. And you entirely understand his absurd (by his own admission) desire on some level to be liked by the racists in whose company he lands. On the other hand, why pay them much heed? These people, after all, “are not life’s winners”.

Edelman’s boundless energy finds him traversing the wide expanse of the Menier stage more or less throughout, with little more than three stools for company. You believe it when this restless being recounts the multiple medical check-ups he’s had over time to check for autism, only to report his mum’s disbelief at the reckoning by a doctor that her son might in fact be fine.

Not that playgoers will be focused anywhere but on the livewire, magpie talent in front of them, who came to comic awareness in London during a semester abroad program whilst an undergraduate at NYU. Just for Us finds the general in the specific, the politically impassioned in the deeply personal: let’s just say that the unfolding mutual admiration society between Edelman and his British public looks unlikely to abate anytime soon.

Alex Edelman: Just For Us is at the Menier Chocolate Factory through 26 February. Book Alex Edelman: Just For Us tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Alex Edelman (Photo by Alastair Muir)

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