Review by Donna Herman
25 October 2016
Hmmm… Monica Piper… nope, doesn’t sound Jewish to me. But who am I to judge? I distinctly remember when I was in 5th grade running through a list of my classmates’ names in my head, Norma Davila, check… Ralph Corsiglia… Robbie McMiillan, check and check. I was Jewish, so I assumed everyone else I knew was. I’ve since learned better and I’m a little more discerning now.
But there’s no mistaking that accent, and it turns out that the Monica Piper who is performing a solo show about her life called “Not That Jewish,” at New World Stages, really is all that Jewish. Although her childhood next door neighbor, Carol Bengelsdorf, accuses her of being “not that Jewish” not because of her name, but because she catches her in a little (ahem) fib, about having gone to temple on Rosh Hashanah. Oy. So, because she is authentically Jewish, despite Carol Bengelsdorf’s slanderous and unfounded accusations, at age 7, little Monica has an existential crisis about whether or not she’s Jewish. WAIT. Did I say little Monica? That’s not her name. At least not yet. Phew. Almost made a mistake there. Glad I caught that, that would have been embarrassing. Did I spell embarrassing correctly? No red or blue underline so it must be okay. Sorry, I digress. I’m a little OCD about being right. And spelling. Did I mention I’m also Jewish? I know, my name doesn’t necessarily sound like it. Sorry again, where was I? Right. Monica, who is not Monica yet, was 7 and having an existential crisis about not being Jewish enough. So she goes around to each one of her parents and her grandmother and quizzes them on how they know they’re Jewish if they don’t go to temple. For her father, it’s very simple. “What’s your mother doing right now in the kitchen?” “Making chopped liver?” “Exactly! Gentiles don’t sit home making chopped liver. They can’t even eat it. It makes them gag. You love chopped liver. I rest my case.”
I love chopped liver, and as you can tell, I relate to a lot of what Monica reveals to us as she prowls around the stage. She grew up in the Bronx and I grew up in Manhattan, but we were both raised, as her mother explains it “Jewish, but not very religious.” And both of our fathers were in show business. Hers was a comedian, mine was a make-up artist and playwright. She grew up travelling the borscht belt and learning how to do a spit take, I grew up in Captain Kangaroo’s dressing room. For reals. Mr. Green Jeans made my first set of curtains.
But this is about Monica, and being Jewish. Or was it not being Jewish enough? I’m laughing and relating, mostly. As is the rest of the audience who is about three-quarters alta cocker, and one-quarter able to wear lace-up shoes. But, like I was at the beginning of this review, Monica is starting to seem a little too eager to share every tiny detail of herself and her life.
We learn about her father’s career as a comic and how he gave it up to give her a stable home. We follow her to San Francisco after she graduates from college with a teaching degree, marries a tall blond gentile who thinks she’s too Jewish and (gasp) NOT FUNNY! Cue the lawyers. We follow her after her divorce as she moves to LA, becomes a singing waitress, talks to her father on the phone, gets a dog, starts acting lessons, talks to her mother on the phone, develops 5 minutes of comedy, then 15, talks to her father again, starts living with another boyfriend, changes her name from May Lee Davis to Monica Piper after noticing the sign for the Santa Monica Pier (ixnay the “Santa” and insert a “p” in the “Pier”), ignites her comedy career, longs for a Jewish family of her own, talks to her father yet again, discovers her boyfriend is a drug addict, meets up with her family in NYC and runs into her childhood idol Mickey Mantle, tells us about it ad nauseum so she can end with the punchline, “Wow. Mickey Mantle couldn’t get to first base.” And we haven’t even gotten to the last half hour where the really life altering stuff happens. Her son, her bout with the Big C.
“Not That Jewish” needs a good bit of trimming, and another hook to hang its hat on. As it stands now, she’s trying to force the narrative of her life into the framework of how she relates to her Judaism. I suspect that’s because of who’s paying the Piper. Sorry, couldn’t resist. The whole “I don’t go to temple so I have to prove to myself I’m Jewish” thing? Not so resonant with me. Since the diaspora the Jews have been wandering around not able to get to temple on a regular basis, sometimes even pretending to be Christian. We don’t eat mayo on our salami sandwiches, that’s how we know we’re Jewish. Don’t overthink. Being a single mother and beating breast cancer? That’s something to talk about. Being a woman head writer on a TV show in Hollywood? She never mentioned that and I’d like to know about that. Being the showrunner on Rugrats? Start talking lady.