Alex Edelman began developing Just for Us at a pub in London. This week, a revised version of the one-man show opened on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre. In between, it’s played various venues throughout the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, with capacities ranging from a few dozen to a couple hundred seats. Regardless of the size, one element remains constant: Edelman knows how to work a room.
That skill comes in handy for the events depicted in Edelman’s whip-smart, intricately constructed monologue. The comedian’s ability to charm and disarm stands at the core of the experience he presents in Just for Us, which recalls an evening spent at a meeting of white supremacists in Queens, New York. As an observant Jew, Edelman surely sticks out like a sore thumb among this enclave of the self-defined “master race,” but over the course of his infiltration, he finds himself providing council, compassion, and a bit of flirtation with a group of people who hate his very identity. Talk about winning over a tough crowd.
Edelman uses his greatest weapon, humor, to both contextualize the story and to win over the audience—which, he correctly assumes, comes closer to his own ideological spectrum. He introduces the possibility for a meet-cute with a participant named Chelsea, in what ends up sounding like the most incendiary pitch for a romantic comedy of all time. He homes in on the pathetic nature of the meeting: What’s more depressing, he asks, than a cadre of neo-Nazis who choose to live in New York City? (Just move to Kansas and solve all your problems, he posits.) He renders the other attendees—a barely legal slacker dude; an old lady with a penchant for puzzles and racial slurs; a suspicious ringleader who gives his name only as “Cortez”—with dopey overstatement that holds an acid edge.
But within this purview, Edelman also questions the fundamentals of identity and what it means to be a Jew. This frame separates Just for Us from the strict repetitions of set-up and punchline that dominate traditional stand-up comedy, bringing it closer to the performance styles favored by contemporaries like Hannah Gadsby, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Kate Berlant (and, among earlier generations, the likes of Eric Bogosian or Spalding Gray). After identifying empathy as a key Jewish value, Edelman wonders whether he has a duty to put himself in the shoes of these people, relating it to a childhood experience when his mother held a Christmas celebration for a grieving colleague at their family home. Is kindness always a mitzvah, or are there limits?
In some ways, Just for Us is unafraid to answer this question. Of course there is a danger to humanizing hatred, even if you feel sorrow for the people poisoned by it. But as an intellectual exercise and a piece of entertainment, Edelman’s monologue rejects simple solutions and easy laughs. An extended segment about Jewish identity and whiteness is sure to make some in the audience as uncomfortable as the show’s overall premise. Edelman handles this sensitive subject with introspection and care.
At around 100 minutes, the performance could benefit from some judicious trimming, particularly in the discursive lead-up to the monologue’s final act. In running through the details that color the central story—his upbringing, family life, and self-actualization as a Jew—Edelman occasionally loses the primary thread. But his energy as a comedic performer never flags, and at times, I found myself mesmerized by his physicality: loose limbs and floppy hair one moment, stock-still introspection the next. Even his surreptitious sips of water from a bottle hidden in the wings felt theatrical.
Edelman developed Just for Us with the director Adam Brace, who died suddenly in April. (The program lists Alex Timbers as a creative consultant.) It’s a testament to Brace’s finely detailed direction as much as Edelman’s impeccable storytelling that such a tragic loss of the precipice of the production’s Broadway bow seems not to have impeded its success in the slightest. Just for Us grapples with a grim subculture in the best possible way: leading with humor and humanity, yet without losing sight of the lurking danger. Talk about Jewish values.