NJT’s ‘Old Jews’ delivers laughs through the ages

Left to right: Johanna Elkana-Hale, Bobby Miller, Craig Neuman, Dave Cooperstein, Stellie Siteman 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

You really don’t have to be Jewish to love the New Jewish Theatre’s production of “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” but it wouldn’t hoit! The five-member ensemble cast more than do justice to the material in this laugh-a-second production, which you may want to see more than once because the audience roars so loud at times, some of the rapid-fire punch lines are drowned out.

Cast members, all of whom turn in virtuoso performances in the sometimes challenging comedic routines and stand-up skits, are Dave Cooperstein as Reuben, Johanna Elkana-Hale as Debbi, NJT artistic associate Bobby Miller as Nathan, Craig Neuman as Morty and Stellie Siteman, artistic director of Max & Louie Productions, as Bunny.  

Edward Coffield adroitly directs what unfolds like an informal compendium of the very best in Jewish humor through the decades.

Adapted from the website OldJewsTellingJokes.com, which contains the original Jewish comic geniuses telling the same jokes, the play was co-written with verve and superb timing by Daniel Okrent and Peter Gethers.

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The NJT production makes skilled use of video, including a very funny clip of Borscht Belt legend Alan King evoking peals of laughter from a Catskills audience by asking women to read the closing line in a succession of obituaries from the New York Times: “survived by his wife.”

“Old Jews Telling Jokes” is definitely not for kids – or for older folks who are easily offended by explicitly sexual slang. In the tradition of the late Lenny Bruce, this play does not shy away from “blue” material from the stand-up scene. There are some F-bombs  sprinkled among the routines and they sometimes feel shocking coming from the NJT stage. But once the audience gets the joke, the shock is replaced by raucous laughter.

Even the most familiar jokes gain renewed energy as retold by the cast, whose timing evokes memories of improvisational companies such as Second City, including Mike Nichols and Elaine May in their prime.

So, an elderly Jewish patient goes to his urologist and says, “Doc, I can’t pee.”  Doctor says, “You’re 94. You’ve peed enough!”

Bunny:  “Why don’t Jewish mothers drink?  They don’t want to dull the pain.”

Nathan:  Three Jewish mothers are sitting on a bench.

Debbi:  Oyyyyyyyyyyyy,

Reuben:  Aiiiiiiiii. Gevalt.

Debbi:  Ehhhhhhhh. Vey ist mir.

Bunny:  I thought we weren’t going to talk about the children.

Throughout the show, either green screen or title cards designate the different stages of life (e.g. childhood, dating, marriage).  Each designation is illustrated amusingly and breaks up the action into distinct areas of humor.

Miller fully occupies the part of Nathan, puffing on an ever-present cigar (not to worry, it is an e-cigar). Described as 60 to 70 years old,Nathan probably looked 60 when he was 40. Or even 30.  Nathan sees the downside to anything and reacts in the appropriately grumpy way.  He also knows every one-liner in comedy history.

Siteman is a brassy and tough comedy veteran who holds her own against her fellow cast members. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the cast, as skilled as they are, could get through their rehearsals without cracking themselves up every few seconds.

The production traces the centuries-old tradition of great Jewish comics all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, the very first Jewish couple. When Sarah is informed by God that she will bear a child at her very advanced age, she does what any Jewish woman would do – even in the presence of the Almighty: She laughs.  Sarah even names that child Yitzhak, which means laughter.

The audience should be prepared to laugh its tuchus off with this delightfully ribald production that is performed with gusto by a talented and hilarious cast.