nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 9, 2005
ABIE: Then listen dear, let him think your name is Murpheski.
ROSE MARY: You mean, I'm to let him think I'm Jewish until he likes me?
- from Abie's Irish Rose by Anne Nichols (1922)
The premise of Jewtopia, the new and apparently very successful comedy by Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, is that Chris O'Connell, Catholic, wants to marry a Jewish girl—any Jewish girl—because then he won't have to make any more decisions (because, presumably, she will make all the decisions; Jewish girls are "like" that). Chris asks his childhood friend Adam Lipschitz (who is Jewish) to help him learn to "be" Jewish so that he can achieve his fantasy. In exchange, Chris will give dating advice to Adam, who needs to marry a Jewish girl in order to please his Jewish parents and grandmother; Chris, though apparently unsure of his ability to seem Jewish enough for a long-term relationship with a Jew is quite the lad when it comes to picking up Jewish women at singles mixers or online at www.JDate.com, the website that he calls "Jewtopia," where 500,000 lonely Jewish people can search in cyberspace for the Jewish mate of their dreams. (JDate is a real website. I tried to get on it this morning, just out of curiosity, but I couldn't access it.)
In the play's first scene, Chris proves his Jewish mettle to an initially skeptical Adam by successfully completing a variety of Hebrew prayers such as the Sh'ma and the blessing over wine. Adam demonstrates his ignorance of Jewish culture (he calls himself a "bad Jew") by not knowing what year Israel became a state and not remembering the name of the Barbra Streisand movie Yentl. Adam, by the way, is a 30-year-old lawyer who has not been to synagogue since his bar mitzvah, where he humiliated himself by exposing himself to the congregation and then running naked around the bimah three times. Chris, also 30, is a systems analyst. It's not clear when he last when to church, but he says in the final scene of Act I that he has "a friend in Jesus" and despite living amongst suburban New York Jews all his life thinks it's okay to say things like "Jew you down" to a rabbi.
There is one grievously insulting moment in the play, in which Adam explains the Yiddish word "schvartzer" to Chris, telling him that this derogatory label for African Americans is okay to use among other Jews but not in front of Blacks. Chris proves he has caught on to this inherent racism by crying out, later, that he loves everybody—"even schvartzers."
Adam asks Chris at one point why he doesn't convert to Judaism (and Chris actually announces his plans to do so—including, of course, getting circumcised—ouch!). They talk about this momentous personal decision as if it had the weight of, say, switching from mocha frappucino to latte at Starbucks.
Fogel and Wolfson, self-described "nice Jewish boys," are self-aware enough to apologize in advance, in a program note, for the offensiveness of their play. What they don't apologize for is the fact that this comedy isn't particularly funny. The audience that I was part of barely laughed at anything in Act I: not at the cheesy "costumes" in which Adam allows himself to be photographed for JDate as he assumes the four online personas that Chris advises him to take on (such as a rapping "Club Jew" or a forelock-wearing Hasid—"King Jew" in Chris's words); not at the grilling that Chris undergoes at the hands of the pushy mother of his new Jewish girlfriend; not at the sight gag that ends Act I, in which Adam dresses Chris is a flak jacket loaded with necessary "Jewish Man" supplies (Visine, Pepto-Bismol, Metamucil, etc.).
In any event, I'm entirely at a loss to understand the appeal of this play which, I learned today, is now officially earning a profit. A hundred years ago, when immigrants from all over the world were converging on Manhattan's Lower East Side, escaping poverty and oppression in hopes of a better life in a country whose language and customs were entirely alien to them, a theatre tradition sprang up in which these groups made fun of each other, using ethnic humor to grapple with the fearsome clash of cultures. But time passed and things changed, and even a wildly offensive (by today's standards) play like Abie's Irish Rose could celebrate, finally, that the Irish and Jews who supposedly hated each other could successfully come together to create a new kind of American family. Doesn't a Jewtopia push Jews back into the ghetto they've been trying to escape for the past century?