Review: A Jewish man walks into a room full of neo-Nazis. Self-exploration, empathy and sly humor ensue

Comedian Alex Edelman likes to get along with folks. Being a “good boy” is important to him. When he nearly knocked into a stool on stage, he said excuse me — a reflexive, almost apologetic, politeness that is part of his charm.

Edelman’s desire to be liked is put to the test when he attends a meeting of white nationalists in Queens, N.Y. These people don’t initially know that a Jew is in their midst, though suspicions are afoot the moment he walks in the door.

What he’s doing at such a gathering and how he managed to live to tell the story is the subject of his winning comedy show “Just for Us,” which is playing at the Mark Taper Forum through Nov. 26 after its critically hailed Broadway run this year.

This touring production has been brought in to reanimate the Taper during its programming hiatus. Reminiscent of the comedy-theater hybrids of Mike Birbiglia, who helped shape the show and served as a presenter in New York, “Just for Us” is one of the best things I’ve seen in the venue in years.

A captivating storyteller, Edelman sets the stage for his off-kilter tale with the perfect balance of satiric commentary and zingy punchlines. You never have to wait too long for a joke that detonates just the way you want it to. (I’m going to try my best not to retell all my favorite jokes in this review, but the temptation is hard to resist.)

A nebbishy hipster, Edelman is his own best asset. He approaches the world with a plucky innocence, confident that he can talk himself out of any predicament, no matter how awkward or potentially dangerous.

Dressed in slim-fitting pants and a shirt buttoned up to the top, he capers across the stage like a Pee-wee Herman who knows where to shop for clothes. Edelman’s fingers always seem to be reaching for a delectable memory that he can’t wait to share with us.

He recalls a British comedian of a more decisive political bent urging him to start working on a show that will “illuminate the terrifying present” and “give hope for an even more terrifying future.” But that isn’t really Edelman’s style.

His sensibility is geared more toward anecdotal comedy of a personal nature. “Benign silliness” is his specialty. But while working on a British comedy show for the BBC — it’s “like a podcast, but for the dying,” he helpfully explains to any confused Gen Z audience members — he gets into a back-and-forth on Twitter with a guy who takes an instant dislike to him simply because he’s Jewish.

Edelman wakes up after this exchange to an avalanche of hate. But instead of deleting his account he creates a Twitter list of rabid antisemitic commenters, puckishly dubbing the group “Jewish National Fund Contributors” to rile its unwitting members even further. One night while scrolling through his toxic feed, he comes across an invitation to those in New York City who have questions about their whiteness. A solo comedy show with a sharp political edge is born.

As an Ashkenazi Jew, raised in a religiously observant household, Edelman is loaded with questions about his whiteness. He assumes he’s headed for some “Nazi bar,” but winds up in an apartment with 17 randos. An older woman at the door is sluggishly engrossed in a 12,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. He steps inside into a swamp-like subculture of lost souls, who honestly believe that the most pressing problem facing America is prejudice toward white people.

Edelman is struck — and perhaps a little soothed — by the amount of kvetching in the room. He listens to the attendees complain about Confederate statues being removed and white history being erased. They believe “a slow-moving genocide against white people” is underway. And Jews, history’s default scapegoat, are the reason for this sorry state of affairs.

One guy explains the malignant rationale: “Jews are sneaky, and they’re everywhere.” Hiding in plain sight, Edelman notes the irony. “Kind of hard to argue with that one right now,” he says.

You might wonder why he didn’t make a beeline for the door there and then, but the movie playing in Edelman’s head was a rom-com. A neo-Nazi named Chelsea seizes his imagination. They discover they both dislike Jared Kushner, though for vastly different reasons. Edelman doesn’t have much hope that he can turn this encounter into a meet-cute, but attraction proves stronger than common sense.

“Just for Us” — originally directed by Adam Brace, a close collaborator of Edelman’s who tragically died a few weeks before the show opened on Broadway — leaves us hanging at the meeting to fill us in on Edelman’s background. He tells the audience that he’s from “this really racist part of Boston called Boston.” Being Jewish is so central to his identity that he worries that he isn’t Jewish enough. To his fellow comics, he may be “a beard away” from being a rabbi. But to his family, he’s Lady Gaga.

Edelman’s reminiscences about his upbringing are conveyed with an impish glint. He’s like a kid who can’t wait to show us all his favorite old toys. One tale revolves around the year that Christmas was admitted into the household to comfort a lonely friend of his mother’s. The fallout at his yeshiva is both hilarious and touching.

Empathy comes naturally to Edelman, but mostly he just wants to belong — universally. He’s not that picky. He values what makes him different, but he doesn’t want to be hemmed in by it. He’s concerned that his act might be limited to Jewish enclaves in big cities. He envies Robin Williams, whose comedy could cross not only ethnic, racial and religious divides but apparently even the species barrier, if the story told about the gorilla who knows sign language is true.

Much is revealed about Edelman during the course of the show, but maybe the most startling revelation is that his need to win people over — be they a theater audience or a bunch of whack-jobs in Queens — determines how much of himself he bestows and withholds.

He describes himself as “pandering and solicitous” in public and is fully aware of the way amiability can blur into inauthenticity, But he’s too self-critical to be a fake. Back at the meeting of sad-sack white nationalists, he’s eventually forced to reveal that he attended a Jewish high school and has two Jewish parents.

The room is stunned into silence. Edelman tries to explain that even though he’s Jewish, he benefits quite regularly from white privilege. That argument, as you can imagine, goes nowhere.

It’s no spoiler to say that he escaped with his life, but then he’s the first to admit that he wasn’t ever really in danger with these “Nerf Nazis.” But would he pull such a stunt again? “1,000%,” he says. Racists lock themselves into an echo chamber. He expects more from himself, and he hasn’t given up hope that good-humored contact might be able to make a moral difference.

As Edelman comes to realize, it’s hard to hate when you’re sitting face to face with people, even those with the most hateful ideologies. The categories of “us” and “them” have a chance to relax, if only for a fleeting moment, when divergent humanity is in sudden proximity.

Still, in these murderously divisive times, with antisemitism sickeningly on the rise, it’s an invaluable skill to be able to talk your way safely to the exit. But first, please, allow this sly, daring, genuinely congenial comic to talk his way into your theatrical life.

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