25 Questions for a Jewish Mother
nytheatre.com review by David Koteles
October 18, 2006
When I heard comedienne Judy Gold was doing a new performance piece called 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, I called up my dear friend Bethany who, like Gold, is not only funny but also a Jewish daughter and a lesbian mother. Bethany was thrilled to go with me and promised to share her insights.
Going in, I imagined the audience would be more of a Chelsea/Hell's Kitchen/Park Slope crowd—frankly, comprised of gay men and lesbians. I was surprised to see that the audience, with the exception of Bethany and me, was a middle-aged and older Jewish crowd; seemingly conservative, as many men were wearing yarmulkes and some women wore wigs, and presumably straight. How would they react to an outspoken, ball-busting lesbian like Judy Gold?
If you don't know Judy Gold, she can make Rosie O'Donnell seem demure (she actually wrote her jokes during the height of Rosie's TV success, and won Emmy awards for it). Gold was even once proclaimed a national security risk—a badge of honor she wears proudly on her lefty sleeve—after drunkenly cursing Bush's name on stage at a Howard Dean rally. Yes, Gold is a handful, known for her humors rants and her mouthful of profanities (rent The Aristocrats).
However, there are few people who can do what Judy Gold does as well as Judy Gold. Besides being candid, Gold is funny, engaging, and smart. Audiences like her, you can't help liking her. And audiences attending her one woman show about Jewish guilt at St. Luke's (no, the irony is not lost on Gold) Theatre are certainly liking her—no, they're loving her.
25 Questions, however, is not really a play. It's a hybrid of standup comedy and a one person autobiographical show. She addresses the audience directly as herself, she stands at a mic and tells Judy Gold jokes, and she tells her life story from early childhood to present day. However, Gold also does something I never knew she could do: she sits in a chair and gracefully morphs into a wide variety of characters—all Jewish mothers, each with her own voice, posture, mannerism, pace, and tone. Gold's character work is as good as you will find on the New York stage right now. Each of the mothers is smartly portrayed with quiet dignity and restraint. It is a performance of surprising subtly and poignancy. The show is well directed by Karen Kohlhaas; it never feels like comedy club material and thankfully veers from the monotony that plagues so many one woman shows. The effervescent Gold fills the space with energy and laughter.
The spectrum of mothers is incredibly fascinating to watch and listen to, and left me wondering why we don't see more of them in her show. Gold and her writing partner, playwright Kate Moira Ryan, interviewed more than 50 Jewish mothers across the country, asking them a series of 25 questions. However, the show explores only a handful of those questions and we see only one answer (i.e., one character) per question. This leaves one speculating whether Gold and Ryan actually got answers to their questions that could inspire a whole show—as the present show relies significantly more on the strength of Gold's standup talent than on the stories Gold and Ryan spent five years cultivating. Don't get me wrong, what did make the cut is deeply satisfying, both moving and funny, and certainly leaves you wanting more. Perhaps Gold ultimately discovered that the real show was herself, her own life: a Jewish daughter involved in a challenging relationship with her mother, a Jewish mother herself, an outspoken lesbian, and a threat to homeland security. For my friend Bethany who is also all those things (except a threat to homeland security—at least to my knowledge), the show succeeded on many levels, and hit home for her. As for this goyish, Catholic-raised guy, I laughed for much of the 80 minutes and never felt like I wasn't getting the joke.
While I was able to put aside my preconceived notions of Jewish mother shtick, I could not put aside my opinion of what makes a tight show. The show could be better constructed, it could go deeper, and, frankly, it could be a more challenging piece of theatre—but really, does it matter? Because Judy Gold could not be more appealing, and that's what audiences will leave remembering.
The all-too-few but beautifully told monologues build throughout the evening and end on a memorable and touching note. Bethany admitted that she didn't think she'd ever find herself crying at a Judy Gold performance, and I had to agree. But I merely nodded in agreement, as I was too verklempt to talk.