By: Samuel L. Leiter
July 5, 2023: Two mainstream comedy shows recently opened in New York, both directed by the late Adam Brace, who died in April at the tragically young age of 43. One stars a Brit, Liz Kingsman, the other a Yank, Alex Edelman; one is Off Broadway, the other on (after successful Off-Broadway runs). Although neither, for me at any rate, reached the absolute heights of hilarity many of the reviews led me to expect, both are smart and funny enough to satisfy most comedy seekers, and, bit for bit, funnier than the currently streaming one-person shows featuring two of my great faves, Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman.
We begin with Liz Kingsman’s One Woman Show, at Greenwich House in the Village. If you’re familiar with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the quirky British actress-writer whose Fleabag, both as a TV series and a one-woman show about sex and the single girl, made her such a sensation that she even landed the costarring role in the new Indiana Jones movie, you’ll be delighted to know that Kingsman is cut from similar cloth. In fact, One Woman Show is itself something of a Fleabag parody (as well as of the one-woman genre).
One Woman Show—aside from a quick, wordless appearance by a female stagehand—is just that, but, technically, it’s more a two-person show, since we often hear the offstage voice of a director, and, at the end, see the onstage presence of a male dancer bizarrely costumed as a wildfowl (presumably the same [uncredited] actor as the one whose disembodied voice we’ve been hearing). It comes to us after premiering at London’s Soho Theatre (where Fleabag originated) in 2021, gaining international acclaim in Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Sydney, while also earning an Olivier nomination on the West End.
A pleasantly attractive young woman in her late 20s dressed almost childishly in sneakers, dark blue overalls, and a pinstriped white jersey, Kingsman projects an adorably eccentric presence, her dry, semi-posh accent decidedly British, her manner deceptively girlish yet generally understated, and her always self-aware, satirical humor consistently fresh and unexpected. Her timing is perfect, as is her ability to seemingly make a statement, and append a throwaway follow-up subverting what she’s just said. She also captures character by precisely executed physical behavior, like the friend who’s persistently rolling a joint. Extended movement sequences—including a modern dance bit—benefit from the choreography of Joshua Lay.
Kingsman’s is not a standup routine disguised as a play—no hand-held mic here—but more a confessional monologue, satirizing the women of her generation, packed with nonstop jokes and sight gags (wait for the water bottle sequence) on familiar subjects. Depending on an outstanding gift for behavioral images and vocal shifts, she carries on with the surprisingly extensive assistance of a highly sophisticated sound and lighting design, the former by Max Perryman, the latter by Daniel Carter-Brennan.
Within an auditorium beautifully lit so that its arched windows glow violet against the darkened walls, designer Chloe Lamford provides a simple set dominated by a swiveling gray office chair at center, which seems rooted in a clump of earth, placed on a platform ringed by a neon strip. Cameras are set up at either side to record before a live audience what, with a meta-like premise, is presumed to be Kingsman’s production of a work called, self-referentially, Wildfowl. She hopes it will be picked up for TV and become a huge hit, although the official responsible can’t be present.
Liz, serving as both the narrator and someone much like herself within the play-within-a-play (determining which is which is sometimes challenging), frequently interacts with her tech team when problems periodically crop up, increasing her anxiety while the voice in charge downplays the issues, thus raising the nervous temperature. The unnamed heroine, who does marketing at a bird conservatory and lives with a pothead girlfriend from college, finds herself in a rut, both career- and man-wise. Frank sexual allusions pervade her commentary, including amusing references to her boyfriend, Jared, and an 8’9” Adonis she lusts for named Phil whose real identity gets a huge laugh. In brief, she comically mirrors, with bite, many similar women of her generation. She may view herself as an example of the messy woman trope, but her boss, Dana, notes, “You’re not a mess. You just want to be seen as one.”
If the audience response when I went is any gauge, many people will want to see this mess—hot or not—in action.
Alex Edelman’s Just for Us flies us across the pond to Queens, New York, the central locale of the author-comedian’s tale of what is was like for this curious fellow, raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Boston, to attend a meeting of white nationalists. His show, previously seen in the UK and Australia, and locally at the Cherry Lane and the Soho Playhouse, garnered Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations; I missed its Off-Broadway showings and, while enjoying much of it at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, couldn’t help feeling it would have been more potent in a smaller house.
The sense of excess space is emphasized by David Korins’s set, efficiently lit by Mike Baldassari, which is essentially a gilded formal proscenium placed upstage of the Hudson’s actual proscenium, a few feet in front of the stage’s rear brick wall, much as it also appeared at the Hudson for A Doll’s House. Edelman, dressed in a long-sleeved, pale gray shirt, buttoned to the neck, tan slacks, and sneakers, fills the space by trotting around it (again, no hand-held mic) as he narrates his material, employing three stools for furnishings.
Slender and with a short mop top that allows him to often rush his hands through it, his behavior brings to mind a similarly energetic, if more manic and less intellectual, Jerry Lewis, as he appeared in his early days. Some of Edelman’s heavily Jewish-oriented humor suggests material familiar from the even funnier (to me, at any rate) Jackie Mason, and a host of other Borscht Belt tummlers. Riffs on phlegm-clearing Yiddish words, for example, or plastic furniture covers, can be funny, but they’re far from fresh.
When Edelman recounts the predicament of being alone in an apartment of anti-Semites he hits comic gold, but, since this is such a perfectly Woody Allen situation, it’s hard to resist imagining what Woody would have done with the very same words. Still, Edelman, who frequently smiles with pleasure at his own commentary, as if agreeing with his audience’s reaction, is nonetheless an amusingly deft comedian with a personality that the audience quickly embraces. Perhaps most unusual is how effectively he avoids the bluer forms of laugh-getting.
Although it has a definite dramatic core, Just for Us loves to digress, making it lean more toward an extended standup routine than a standard play. That dramatic core concerns a gathering of white supremacists in a Queens apartment building to which Edelman, through the medium of Twitter, is invited. His curiosity piqued, despite his obvious fears, he attends this meeting of 16 people he calls “Nazis,” keeping his Jewish identity and his ethnic name secret for as long as possible. He even finds in a pretty young woman a possible dating partner, going so far as to dream up a rom-com film about their affair. Overflowing with empathy, he’s convinced he can use his nice Jewish boy charm to sway his auditors. After all, he notes, if Koko the gorilla can cross the species barrier by feeling sad for Robin Williams’s passing, why can’t one human similarly connect with members of his own species? Alex is in for a rude awakening.
Edelman’s focus on a group that bitterly resents anything that suggests something negative about racial whiteness—the “myth of white privilege” in particular—couldn’t be timelier. Just this week, there reemerged last year’s controversy about a University of Chicago teacher after she became the subject of online harassment when a conservative student complained about her course on “The Problem of Whiteness.”
With scalpel-sharp resourcefulness Edelman navigates the comic possibilities of a Jew finding himself amid such potentially threatening people, but he prefers to shift focus from the meeting per se to a narrative about his Jewish youth as a Boston yeshiva boy, particularly the time his mother, to accommodate a gentile friend, celebrated Christmas, tree included. We hear how he and his brother—later an Israeli winter Olympian (but that’s another story)—responded to this strange holiday with its fat man in a red suit who eats the cookies left for him when he comes down the chimney with his gifts. Edelman’s description of the phone call that followed between the head of the yeshiva, when he learned of the celebration, and Edelman’s father is priceless.
There are other topical issues on hand here, always used for a laugh, not an argument. In fact, Alex Edelman may even be funny and nice enough to someday win one of those white nationalists over to his side. On second thought, maybe not.
One Woman Show ****1/2
27 Barrow Street, NYC
Through August 11
Photography: Joan Marcus
Just for Us ****1/2
141 W. 44th Street, NYC
Through August 19
Photography: Mathew Murphy