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‘Old Jews Telling Jokes’ finds the joy in even the weakest jokes

There’s a funny thing about the jokes in Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent’s “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” now on stage at Jewish Repertory Theatre: They’re not all that funny. But – and it’s a big but – it’s still funny.

How can this be?

I couldn’t begin to tell you why the premise of four Jews doing sit-down comedy is bound to work, no matter who is involved, what’s being said or who is in the audience. Jews are just funny people. Sometimes, on purpose.

Co-directors Saul Elkin, who also stars, and Tom Loughlin have assembled a fine five-hander here, a revue with weightless shoulders, aired out just enough to keep things buzzing and not mindful of the absurdity of this forced format. (The opening musical number is the only outlier here, and it stinks.)

Its one act is maybe 10 minutes too long, but neither Elkin, nor his co-stars – Christina Rausa, Josie DiVincenzo, Todd Benzin and Robert Rutland – make you mind it. This is a fantastic ensemble, handled efficiently by capable hands and lit beautifully by Brian Cavanaugh. Their only weakness is their material, which offers too few moments of gut-busting laughter. The boil is too simmering, too often.

To be fair, Elkin warns us that this material is not meant to be progressive, updated or modern, rather a throwback to the comedy built by a largely Jewish show business, distributed via Borscht Belt, and loved by many populations more. The common opinion that all Mediterranean ethnicities are essentially the same, be it Jewish, Italian or Greek, is certainly true here; these could be any old people telling the punch lines of their culture. But there’s something more specific at work.

Some of these jokes are very funny, and yet innocuous enough to not be memorable. But with more irony than seems possible, the jokes in this evening of jokes are maybe not the point.

The X factor is missing, the one where you don’t hear the jokes as much as feel them, feel personally instigated by their tellers, threatened by their shameful, familial sway, and then pinched on the cheek before being slipped a $10 bill via handshake.

The punch lines don’t always magnetize to their setups and sure, fine, the joke should make sense, but not more than it should remind you of every salty, bawdy, wise wife you know, and every putzy, crotchety, disgruntled husband shuffling two paces behind her. The hilarious relatives who are wittier than they are funny, smarter than they are schlocky, more generous than they are cheap.

Our cast does its best to remind us of those family jewels, even though, by my unscientific estimation, some of the actors aren’t Jewish. Should this matter? Not so much. These are actors, they have a chameleon’s job to do, and that’s a fair challenge. But with material that’s specifically grounded in one’s heritage, this incongruity can’t go unexamined. It doesn’t spoil the soup, but in the absence of that one detail, it rarely elevates to something reminiscent.

This is Benzin’s first time at JRT, but not his first time at the rodeo. His long-running membership with Buffalo’s Eclectic Improv informs many of his wonderful characterizations, including one turn in a luscious blonde wig that’s worth a row of tickets. Rutland, who graces a Buffalo stage too infrequently for my liking, is a page-turner, especially as a few anciently old men. One merely grunted and I had to silence my guffaw for the benefit of my section.

DiVincenzo, who owned Buffalo’s last theater season on this stage with her multicharacter dramatic turn in “Dai,” is refreshingly light here, offering many more from her cadre of personalities. Rausa, who might be the only loose fit, her delicateness always intact, is still delightful. She makes it work, and in fact, grounds her more riotous castmates. Elkin, but, of course, belongs here, and does a beautiful job with his storytelling.

Dispersed throughout these jokes, which chronologically visit the many odd stages of our lives, are brief monologues told at a slower pace, in a dimmer spotlight. These stories stop the pace, and are less filled with humor than they are about this humor. About how we use jokes and wit to get us through life’s harrowing realities. About how they tell us who we are on the inside, and about life on the outside. About why, as a people, Jews have counted on laughter to understand so much pain that has become them. Laughter grieves the bereaved and harmonizes the lonely.

Without these jokes, this show stops five times to remind us, we would only be the sorrow that we would have every right to remember. Which means, then, that even a weak one-liner is better than a no-liner. Even the weaknesses in this script are far better than an empty page. And that, more than most Jewish endings, is a fine way to spend a night.

theater review

3 stars

What: “Old Jews Telling Jokes”

Who: Jewish Repertory Theatre

Where: Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville

When: Through Nov. 16

Ticket: $36-$38 general and seniors, $10 students and industry


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