Jackie Mason's Back?ro;”But Why?
Before Seinfeld, before Barbra went WASP in The Way We Were, your average armchair sociologist could posit two basic views of Jewish identity in America: one from New York City (and maybe Miami Beach) and one from everywhere else. Because New York was the only place in the country where being a Jew seemed normal, it fostered an exaggerated insider-identity that, in my extended family and others, could often border on arrogance. Elsewhere, the opposite experience prevailed; despite massive pressure to assimilate, blatant and subtle anti-Semitism constantly recalled the fact of being a minority and fostered an exaggerated outsider identity that could sometimes border on paranoia, even in Miami Beach. Crass generalizations aside, however, two recent theater productions demonstrate both the power such views once held and the extent to which they have now become obsolete.
From the stage, Mason claims to know and understand his critics' objections to his act. "People say I'm too Jewish. But I'm never too Jewish for gentiles. Only Jews think I'm too Jewish." This is a deflection, however, an attempt to steer attention away from the real point. Pretending that only dumb and envious people seriously question him won't keep any of the smart and open-minded ones from noticing, say, that his universal gauge of normalcy, the Jewish delicatessen (they don't have nouvelle cuisine there), isn't universal, or that his view of today's social roles is shockingly narrow. At one point, for instance, he says that "when people become successful they never sound Italian," and "they never sound black." Then he illustrates this with ludicrously exaggerated impressions of the head of General Motors talking like a Brooklyn Mafioso and a tv weatherman talking like a homeboy. The impressions are amusing, for a second or two, but they also leave him looking like he just isn't aware of many different types of "successful" people nowadays.
Let me be clear that I have no interest in measuring Mason (or any comedian) against liberal pieties. My point is only that his humor is tired and its appeal very limited; it won't stand the test of any broader public than the graying and complacent one that follows him. He's not "politically incorrect" (the title of one of his previous shows) in any dangerous sense, if he ever was. He's merely out of date and out of touch, despite his trendy cracks about cellphones and SUVs. ("People buy computers as status symbols?they're buying things they have no use for"?come again?) His notorious ethnic jokes, which comprise the bulk of the evening, are his dullest material. Watching him, I found myself thinking of John Leguizamo's wonderful 1998 Broadway solo show Freak, whose ethnic humor was just as tasteless as Mason's but 10 times fresher and funnier because (1) it reflected the multiethnicity of New York City without seeming to regret it and (2) its group self-critique (about Latinos) never came off as a falsely humble mask for smug dominance.
I readily confess to laughing heartily at least half a dozen times during Much Ado About Everything?at the typical Jewish reaction to Bill Gates' fortune, for instance ("$100 billion? You think it's a lotta money? Ach, years ago it was a lotta money"), and at the forgiving spirit of Hillary Clinton ("If she was Jewish, by now he'd be in a homeless shelter in the Bronx"). It's astonishing, though, how much of this show is either unbelievably hackneyed (Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Ed Sullivan impressions, which go on way too long) or lifted wholesale from Mason's previous shows (the Jesse Jackson jokes are precisely the same as in the 1980s, and the Clinton-lying jokes are nothing but the old Reagan-lying jokes with the name switched). The net impression is of a silly effort to poke holes in balloons that deflated on their own years ago.
John Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St. (betw. 8th Ave. & B'way), 239-6200, through April 2.
Interestingly enough, Adam Baum and the Jew Movie (which recently closed at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre) deals with the opposite terrain of Jewish experience outside New York, and its vision of Jewish invisibility is in some ways as dated as Mason's smugness. Jews and Judaism are much more present in today's American pop culture than they were when the play is set in 1946, so the work sometimes smacks of historical hand-wringing. Happily, though, first-time playwright Daniel Goldfarb also has other ambitions. His story?a fiction based on a shelved project of Samuel Goldwyn?was an excellent vehicle for the fine actor Ron Leibman and was also moving as a general allegory about "passing."
Movie producer Samuel Baum (the Goldwyn character, played with wonderful finicky pushiness by Leibman, with a thick Yiddish accent) is trying to scoop 20th Century Fox and its project Gentleman's Agreement?the first Hollywood movie about American anti-Semitism. Baum has hired Garfield Hampson Jr. to write a competing script, Soil in Utopia, and is convinced this project will prevail ("two Jew movies is one Jew movie too many") because he's been clever enough to hire Hollywood's only WASP writer. Hampson, however, turns in more realism than Baum bargained for?"You've written this script as a Jew, not as a gentile"?and a difficult discussion ensues in which Baum explains the game rules: Hampson can't mention the recent world war, his Jews can't be religious or speak Yiddish and his anti-Semites have to be either sympathetic or not generally representative of Americans.
Hampson is appalled, and his anger is where Goldfarb's play goes awry. We learn little about this WASP, other than that he's a married, rich-born, scotch-drinking Oscar-winner who feels he's been wasting his time with screwball comedies, and we learn almost nothing about the content of Soil in Utopia, so we never know what he's defending. Christopher Evan Welch gives a smoothly confident performance in the role, but his magisterial proclamation that he's sick of being "forced to perpetuate this myth" that everyone in the country "is rich and white" nevertheless sounds like detached critical theory. Later, when he picks up the conversation at Baum's home?where he's been invited to Sam's son Adam's bar mitzvah, ostensibly to conduct research?his abusive vehemence is utterly implausible: "This party is disgusting?the whole thing seems so garish to me." "You people have created the American ideal and it fucking excludes you!"
Baum, meanwhile, has learned of Moss Hart's concept for Gentleman's Agreement?a gentile passes for a Jew in order to write an article about anti-Semitism?and is dumbfounded at its "truth" and simple commercial brilliance: "Only a Jew would write a Jew and not think of writing a Jew." The sturdy core of Adam Baum and the Jew Movie involves this touching portrait of Baum as a secretly insecure mogul (and aggressively loving father, since Adam appears as well), struggling to define the relationship between his heritage and his success. Goldfarb had the makings of a powerful and possibly disturbing one-act in this. Stretching the conception to two acts, without paying the dues of developing the other major character and explaining his stake in the story's 54-year-old political questions, plunged the whole thing into a sort of harmless historical fog.
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