nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
November 14, 2009
A classic Saturday Night Live faux-commercial featuring Gilda Radner as Rhonda Weiss shilling for dungarees ended with the tagline, "You don't have to be Jewish to wear Jewess Jeans...But it couldn't hurt!" Such borscht-belt witticism also applies perfectly to Circumcise Me, the hilarious one-man show written by Yisrael Campbell, currently playing at the Bleecker Street Theatre. Charting Campbell's passage from alcohol abuse and a Catholic upbringing to familial salvation and (multiple) religious conversions, Circumcise Me is at once steeped in Jewish culture and laced with Yiddish nuance, yet immediately accessible to even the most goyische of audience members.
Campbell, born Christopher Campbell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, relates his personal narrative with ease and a convivial nature. Structured as a direct-address anecdote, Circumcise Me describes his teenaged waywardness, and the long, shaggy-dog path that led to his three conversions to Judaism: first to Reform, then to Conservative, and finally to Orthodox. His monologue culminates with the birth of his children and the sense of belonging he ultimately found in his new home in Israel. Though the ending point of Campbell's narrative is known before the lights even rise on his performance, the joy and surprise in this entertaining show come from Campbell's idiosyncratic humor and wry sense of detail: Much as is often the case for Faith, what is important is not the arrival, but the journey.
Save for a cup of coffee, a few books casually referenced (including Exodus, Go Ask Alice, and Chaim Potok's absurdly massive A History of the Jews), and a flip-top telephone, Campbell relies on few props and even fewer costume pieces, placing the emphasis of his story firmly on his story; it is a wise move, and director Sam Gold is to be credited for his reliance on simplicity and unembellished sincerity. Campbell occasionally slips into dialogues with characters from his past, effortlessly portraying both the role of his younger self and a cadre of family members, priests, Muslim father-in-laws, and mohels. His performance is supported by a backdrop cyclorama designed by Aaron Rhyne, featuring occasional slides and flash animation, all presented with the cheesy, good-natured cheer of a 1970's educational microfilm.
Campbell's chosen forename, Yisrael, means, "He who wrestles with God." As Campbell himself points out, it is a particularly suited nomenclature, and audiences will enjoy the tale of his many years grappling and gasping in the wilderness. Circumcise Me is funny, funny stuff: A show that deserves to be seen and that audiences in want of a meaningful laugh deserve to see.