LOU's Views: 'Old Jews Telling Jokes' proves it's best to shtick to what you know

November 1, 2014
The Phoenix Theatre’s “Old Jews Telling Jokes”

“Don’t you have a vase?”

“That’s easy for you to say. You don’t have to get up in the morning.”

And, of course, “He had a hat.”

The smartest anthropologists in the world probably couldn’t trace the history of the oft-told jokes that lead to these punch lines—jokes that have popped up not only on Catskills stages and Friars Club roasts, but also at synagogue mixers and across dinner tables for generations.

Such gags are the building blocks of “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” the comedy revue being given its local premiere at the Phoenix Theatre (through Nov. 23). The 80-minute show, crisply directed by Bryan Fonseca, mixes addressed-to-the-audience jokes with a few monologues and comic songs.

The title violates the truth-in-advertising rule only in its first two words: Missing in the show are actual old Jews. The good news is, the reasonable facsimile offered by a quintet of able, spirited actors handles the job just fine: Daniel Scarbrough shows delightful layers of sweetness in his characterizations. Eric J. Olson is the picture of smarm-free charm. Rich Komenich adds a bit of gravitas. Sara Riemen is adept at keeping the naughty jokes from coming across as raunchy. Adrienne Reiswerg lends cultural authenticity. I didn’t even care whether their seemingly spontaneous enjoyment of one another’s bits was rehearsed or not. Clearly, we are in the hands of good-humored professionals.

The well-curated collection, loosely organized from cradle to grave, included very few duds, two or three that somehow slipped by my comedy radar, and lots and lots that felt like old friends.

The question I left with wasn’t whether or not “Old Jews Telling Jokes” qualified as a play (Who really cares?) or whether it should be taking up a spot in the Phoenix lineup (Who says our leading producer of new and

new-ish plays can’t lighten up to this degree with a near-guaranteed audience-pleaser sure to help its bottom line?).

My question was why a show so built on the tried and true would prove so oddly moving.

Yes, I was moved to laugh, repeatedly. But I also found myself with a lump in my throat, thinking back on a lifetime of telling and hearing jokes, swapping them on front porches and in the backs of school buses, reading them in paperback books, and witnessing the likes of local legend Cozy Morley sharing them from decrepit Club Avalon in my New Jersey town. As a kid, through jokes, I remember discovering the pleasures of hearing people laughing across generations—a beautiful, uniquely human, sound.

That’s the warm sound I heard consistently in the packed Phoenix Theatre. There, actual old Jews—and others—were hearing familiar jokes, smiling as they anticipated punch lines, singing along with a bouncy tune, and, perhaps, remembering the long-gone folks who first made them laugh.

A very different—but near-equally joyful and inspiring audience—was on hand at Zach Rosing Productions’ “The Rocky Horror Show” at the Athenaeum (through Nov. 2) for the 10:30 p.m. show I caught on opening weekend.

Here, too, the crowd showed up to see something it essentially already knew in detail. The cult success of the film version, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” is built from such familiarity—built from midnight-screening-after-midnight screening, inviting audiences to costume themselves, talk back to the screen, shoot water pistols in the air, and dance in the aisles to “The Time Warp.”

Uninitiated? “The Rocky Horror Show” tells the story of newly engaged Brad (Brandon Alstott) and Janet (the spunky Betsy Norton) and their encounter with “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania” Frank N. Furter (Scott Keith). Also on board: Furter’s created-on-the-slab boy toy Rocky (Logan Moore, ideal for the part) and assorted other riffraff—including Riff Raff (Damon Clevenger).

ae-rocky-unknown-15col.jpg Zach Rosing’s video projections highlight “The Rocky Horror Show.” (Photos/ Zach Rosing)

Rosing’s production started off stunningly, with an inspired video credit sequence set to opening song “Science Fiction Double Feature.” The only other time I can think of when a local theater so perfectly delivered video work was in Rosing’s Indy Fringe show “The Great Bicycle Race.” I can’t wait to see the work he’ll do when a theater with a bigger budget comes calling—and I have no doubt that will happen soon.

Here, Rosing’s video magic was helped considerably by a six-piece band so dead-on that I had to check the program to see that the music was, yes, being performed live.

Like the movie, the show itself lost some of its verve after the first half. But the game cast, under the guidance of Director Zack Neiditch, kept matters briskly moving toward its nonsensical climax. Scenic designer Nolan Brokamp made the best of the Athenaeum’s challenges. Hair/Makeup Designer Daniel Klingler had a field day, particularly with the dancers. Paige Scott cross-dressed in the opposite direction from Furter, offering fun turns as both Eddie and the wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott. And, as the narrator, Dave Ruark—helped by smart Rosing camerawork and editing—was pitch-perfect in a running-gag video appearance.

In short: Rosing, Neiditch and company should do “The Time Warp” again … every year.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.


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