Logging onto social media these days is like opening a potentially poisonous box of chocolates: You never know what bad takes, misinformation, and hatred you're going to get amid the good stuff. But that's why we use social media, comedian Alex Edelman suggests: to see bad opinions from safely behind our own screens, where we can feel self-righteous for disagreeing without ever having to truly face most of the people spewing their venom. Unless, of course, you're Edelman, in which case you're met with anti-Semitic hate on Twitter, discover that the offenders are gathering in the next borough over, and decide to infiltrate the proverbial lions' den.
Literally, the den — Edelman vividly describes the living room that serves as White-Nationalists-of-Queens HQ, where a jigsaw puzzle sits outside the entrance and juice and pastries are splayed on tables near a folding-chair circle. Quaint and homey, if you ignore the nearby people griping about the "erasure of white history from schools" and Meghan Markle's admission into the British royal family. This contradiction, between what's inviting and entertaining yet seems like it shouldn't be, is similarly at the heart of Just For Us, Edelman's latest comedy show that's returned to the Cherry Lane Theatre after a Covid-prompted hiatus.
Before launching into the details of this white nationalist meeting where he almost curried his haters' favor, Edelman kicks off with a flippant bit about how an ASL-fluent gorilla took the news of Robin Williams's passing, and the show only gets more off-kilter from there. Among the other stories in his 75-minute set: his only slightly ironic flirtation with a rather pretty young neo-Nazi because "you never know" (his in-depth description of the "he-changes-her-for-the-better" rom-com plot inspired by their hypothetical romance is a gut-busting highlight) and the deer-in-headlights look on his face when an attendee made an anti-Semitic remark about Jewish people being "sneaky and everywhere."
You'll find yourself repeatedly thinking, as Edelman twists racist jokes and stereotypes aimed at him into oft-self-deprecating punchlines, "Should I really be laughing at this?" But this is a comedy show, after all, so you do, with abandon. I, for one, felt reassured when Edelman explained the Jewish philosophy that every kind, positive thing you do is God working through you. I figured either God must be working through Edelman as he's speaking or through me as I'm laughing, because Edelman is top-notch. There's nothing less than positive about his delivery, his presence, and his energy.
Even when he digresses from his main tale into long-winded, only partly related stories, like that of his Olympian brother (capturing perfectly the duality of a sibling relationship: "My brother is great, I'm so proud of him...skeleton is the dumbest sport ever") and the time his Jewish family held Christmas, it's almost difficult to notice, because he is that captivating a storyteller and the flow is that smooth. And all the themes do come together at the end of Just For Us, weaving into a high-level message about the limits of human empathy and our oft-futile desire to change people. It's like a complex jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces end up fitting perfectly into place.
Photo credit: Alex Edelman in Just For Us. (Photo by Monique Carboni)