Review: 'Old Jews Telling Jokes' at New Jewish Theatre – What's Not to Like?

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

“Old Jews Telling Jokes,” currently playing at New Jewish Theater, is a great title, if not completely accurate.  Two of the players are actually young, but none of the five are all that old. Presumably they’re Jewish, and they do tell jokes, lots and lots of jokes; some are uproarious, some are simply amusing, some land with a dull resounding thud and many of them are as off-color as a green bagel.

Cast of "Old Jews Telling Jokes"  Johanna Elkana-Hale, Bobby Miller, Craig Neuman, Dave Cooperstein, Stellie Siteman Photo by John Lamb

Cast of “Old Jews Telling Jokes”
Johanna Elkana-Hale, Bobby Miller, Craig Neuman, Dave Cooperstein, Stellie Siteman
Photo by John Lamb

The jokes come fast and furious for the most part, some of which you’ve heard before, but many a comedic gem that you’ve not heard. Everyone leaves the theater with their favorite. Mine was delivered by Bobby Miller in a brief exchange where he confesses to his doctor that he made a Freudian slip to his wife. When the doctor asks what the Freudian slip was, Miller says, well…that’s the joke part and can’t be repeated here without some expletives deleted, but his response is not what you’re expecting. “Old Jews” is not a play but rather a series of skits and brief stand-up routines with a couple of songs thrown in for good measure. All together, it makes for an enjoyable enough evening.

Dave Cooperstein, Craig Neuman, Bobby Miller Photo by John Lamb

Dave Cooperstein, Craig Neuman, Bobby Miller
Photo by John Lamb

There is a half-hearted attempt by the writers to put the show into a sort-of theme, namely, the influence of Jewish humor on the collective funny bone of Americans who grew up with Jewish humor (in style if not in subject) through their television sets—Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George Burns, et al. Each character gets one semi-serious monologue to convey the import of Jewish humor. The writers don’t really support this notion through the rest of the show however, so it comes off as just a nod in the general direction of some illusive connection the audience is supposed to make. Still, the short but serious monologues were a welcome respite from the frenetic pace, and featured some of the better moments of the show, performance-wise.

Stellie Siteman, Johanna Elkana-Hale Photo by John Lamb

Dave Cooperstein, Stellie Siteman, Johanna Elkana-Hale
Photo by John Lamb

Bobby Miller is the sole actor portraying a character, which will soon be known as the Bobby Miller old guy, since he’s played so many old guys lately they begin to co-mingle in the brain. His timing is among the sharpest in the show, but his character’s raspy voice was sometimes difficult to hear when he spoke and could barely be heard on the songs, which, thinking about it now, may have been on purpose. A nightingale, he’s not. Hearing him was not an issue during his solo, “Old Man River,” which drew big laughs from the audience, but seemed to be randomly inserted into the show to add some length. If the writers of the original script had been more industrious in throwing this show together, they might have rewritten the song as a George Burns-style patter. We should be so lucky. No matter what, though, Miller is always intriguing to watch.

Ebullient Johanna Elkana-Hale and Stellie Siteman (who brought a relaxed confidence to the stage) are fabulous as the two women in the show, and Dave Cooperstein and Craig Neuman (who looks like a doctor—I should introduce him to your sister) perform well but sometimes seemed slightly off on their timing; not surprising as it was the first performance, and ask any comedian, telling jokes is hard and takes the same effort that gets you to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. By the time you read this, that should be resolved. For Cooperstein, he decidedly delivers the best and most moving monologue.

Ed Coffield keeps the show apace, and just when the rapid-fire nature begins to lose its grip, slows the show down and lets the audience take a breath and prepare for the next onslaught. There’s a terrific set by Peter & Margery Spack—which cracks a few of its own jokes—and lights by Nathan Schroeder and Costumes by Michele Friedman Siler were fine.

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” continues at NJT through June 1. For tickets and more information, visit the New Jewish Theatre website, or call at 314.442.3283.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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