OLD JEWS TELLING JOKESBy Daniel Okrent and Peter Gethers
Eisemann Center for Performing Arts
Directed by Jeremy Quinn
Executive Director – Matt Silva
Music Director – David Samuel
Co-Scenic Designer – Joe Binck
Set Construction – Steven McCarthy
Costumes – Jillian Rose Keys
Public Relations – Paulette Hopkins, Bluespark Agency
Group Sales/ Marketing Director – Marla Wallach
Marketing – Leroy Associates, Inc.
Robyn Eli Brenner as Reuben
Emily Freeman as Debbi
Sharon Geller as Bunny
David Samuel as Nathan
Michael H. Small as Morty
Reviewed Performance: 7/12/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
If you don't like sex jokes, then you probably will not enjoy this—but gosh I did! The effective set includes a video projection that cycles through numerous scene changes (a lot of desert islands). In addition to the high-definition visuals, we are cued to the topic changes—so, OK, I know the whole thing is not sex jokes because they told me so in giant letters. Seriously, the production runs the gamut of jokes about parenting, childhood, assimilation, mothers-in-law, marriage, food, retirement, farts, a man-walked-into-a-doctor's-office, a-man-is-stranded-on-a-desert-island, and Mr. Sapperstein's many funerals. It is lively and fast-paced, and the audience was laughing throughout.
The audience first meets the handsome Nathan (David Samuel), who plays the keyboard in addition to telling jokes. He breaks the Fourth Wall, teasing the audience by promising a New York, New York sing along (it's actually something else). He seamlessly changes characters throughout the 90 minute performance, relishing in several different accents.
The entire cast is called upon to constantly change characters and assume different ages and accents, and on some occasion gender. It all works swimmingly.
One way to tell a professional performance is by the timing. Here, there is never a dull moment, as the five performers cycle through different stories, characters, and stand-up jokes. In addition to the video projection, a movable three-part seating module facilitates the quick-paced changes, so that the action flows across the stage from one comic set-up to the next. The performance is engaging and never static, as the different vignettes unfold in different physical set-ups and virtual settings.
There are three reasons not to miss Old Jews Telling Jokes. First, laughing burns calories. Second, you will remember a lot of great jokes from it, and that should come in handy. Third, the play is cohesive enough to, through each of the character's individual stories, leave food for thought on the virtues of comedy—in bringing families together, bringing communities together, as a bridge to the past, as a creative spark, and my favorite, the I'm-gonna-laugh-or-I'm-gonna-cry virtue of comedy as the ultimate coping mechanism.
As to the latter, Robyn Eli Brenner as Reuben thoroughly convinces in a tricky, and yet funny, story about a serious subject, in "Reuben's Story."
Emily Freeman, as Debbi, shows an impressive range in both characterization and octaves. Debbi's Story includes a joke that I didn't know you could tell (there are a lot of those here, and that's not a bad thing, in my opinion). As a prologue to a story exemplifying comedy as a universal language, Debbi explains that growing up she only knew Jewish people—and Italians. But "that's the same, just with better food," Debbi blithely explains.
Personally speaking, this is a true story (also a comic chorus delivered by Bunny (Sharon Geller)): I am married to a half-Sicilian man born in Queens, and his employer, our kids' friends, our Jewish friends—that's the actual list, this is a true story—have at various times thought Doug is Jewish. That's great, and it's also great to finally hear an explanation, that Jewish and Italian are really the same.
There are some truths best explained through humor, and Old Jews Telling Jokes speaks to that.
As Bunny, Geller is commanding and spritely, seemingly effortlessly cycling through an impressive array of different characters. Bunny's story is a very witty, inverted version of "Mad Men." Geller does a superb job, and it is a memorable bit.
Michael H. Small delivers the most physical performance, what I imagine every great vaudeville act would include. He has the broad and sweeping body language of a slap stick aficionado, and the range to deliver a sweet and poignant memory of showing his parents, originally from Eastern Europe, a Yiddish neighborhood in New York, as part of "Morty's Story."
Morty's Story explores jokes as a bridge to one's past, and Old Jews Telling Jokes served that function for me. One of the vignettes, beautifully performed by Geller, is the Jewish version of a "Boudreaux retires" joke that I heard decades ago (I'm from Louisiana). Here's the thing—and it's a glorious theme of OJTJ—if you still remember the joke, then that is because you really laughed. And that's a great thing.
One of my favorite lines is, "it's hard to stop funny from spreading like wildfire." In this regard, the production addresses modern social media, and says something refreshingly positive.
Old Jews Telling Jokes is fun and funny, and the Eisemann Center is a comfortable, convenient venue. As long as you are not adverse to a funny sex joke, I highly recommend it as a hilarious, and also meaningful, experience.
Presented by Philip Roger Roy
July 12 through July 28, 2019; Saturday 2:00 & 8:00 p.m.; Sunday 2:00 & 7:00 p.m.; Thursday 2:00 & 7:00 p.m.; Friday 8:00 p.m.
Eisemann Center for Performing Arts
Bank of America Theatre
2351 Performance Dr.
Richardson, TX 75082
For information and Tickets call 972 744 4650 or go to https://www.eisemanncenter.com/event/i/6579/d/old-jews-telling-jokes.