"A Jewish Millennial walks in to a semi-secret meeting of white supremacists in Queens" sounds like the setup to a joke, and it basically is the setup for an hour and a half of non-stop jokes and funny stories in Alex Edelman's manic but charming Just for Us.
The piece, which is as much an extended comedy set fit for a Netflix special as it is a performance piece, is very much of apiece with Edelman's persona, and almost surely won't be revived anytime in the future by some other performer. It grew out of Edelman's work in the U.K. at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with the late director Adam Brace — who also directed the brilliant Leo Reich in his one-man, high-minded comedy piece, Literally Who Cares?, that you can now find on Max.
Just For Us has now landed for two weeks at Berkeley Rep, after playing in Edinburgh, London, and for two months last summer on Broadway. And it's a delightful, near-breathless, ultimately evocative show about confronting real-life hate and making some kind of sense of it — though it's also a complicated story about being perhaps arrogant, provocative young artist with a desperate need to be liked, and how such a performer squares that with entering a room full of people bent on hating him.
In brief: Edelman had been dealing with a fair amount of antisemitic hate on Twitter a couple years back, and this led him to create a Twitter List of accounts that seemed pretty focused on Jew hate in general. From that list he spotted a post about a meetup in Queens on a random weeknight to discuss "whiteness," and what unfolds is an awkward but compelling story about entering the belly of the beast, as it were, of modern-day American white supremacist anger.
Edelman's talents as a performer and standup are evident — as manic and charming as he is, he's self-effacing enough to point out in the first minutes that he can't claim to hold a candle to Robin Williams, who seems to be an idol, and who was so funny he transcended the species barrier in forging his friendship with Koko the gorilla.
The bulk of Just For Us is not about the neo-Nazi meeting, but is tangent upon hilarious tangent about Edelman himself, growing up Jewish in Boston and attending a yeshiva for elementary school, having a brother who became an Olympic athlete (in skeleton!) for Israel, and being the kind of comedian who grew up on too much Adderall and still can't really sit still or hold on to a linear thought for too long.
As an example: He notes that the meeting of what he ends up calling "Nerf Nazis" in Queens devolved into a discussion of the then-recent royal wedding of Meghan and Harry, and how Harry had sullied the long white lineage of his family by marrying a mixed-race woman. But rather than go too far into what was said on the subject, Edelman tells a sidebar story about his friend doing coke in a London club with Prince Harry, and how when Harry had a coke problem, he would have been snorting coke through rolled up bills with his grandmother's picture on them, and how literally no one else in the world can say they've done that.
This also isn't an elaborate or epic tale of infiltrating a cabal of neo-Nazis and thwarting some dastardly plot they may have. As Edelman says, these weren't even Nazis — they were just a group of aggrieved white people gathering in a sad apartment to share grievances, and in Queens no less, one of the most diverse places in one of the most diverse cities on Earth.
The climax in Edelman's tale of undercover Nerf Nazi surveillance comes pretty quickly, and let's just say his cover was probably blown almost as soon as he walked into the room. But there's power in his telling of it, and in his own confrontation of his ego — or whatever drove him to this stunt in the first place.
Yes, it's a pretty hilarious joke in retrospect, but only if you forget how fucking sad it is that it needed to be told.
'Just for Us' plays at Berkeley Rep through January 21. Find tickets here.
Top image: Photo by Matthew Murphy