There was a moment toward the end of comedian Alex Edelman’s funny, suspenseful, 85-minute solo show “Just For Us” when the opening-night audience at Berkeley Repertory Theatre went totally silent—pin-droppingly so.
That moment felt all the more shocking because Edelman, an antic performer in the Robin Williams mode (and somehow similar to Kieran Culkin in “Succession”), had been racing around the stage practically nonstop, and rattling on, also practically nonstop, at top speed, for the past hour or so. But that’s just how attuned the multi-talented Edelman is to his audience, and just how sensitive he is to his material. He knows how to manipulate us, in the nicest possible way, to get just the effect he wants—laughter, gasps, sympathetic groans, the lot. We’re all in with this hyper, thirtysomething, Boston-born yeshiva kid with something to figure out about just how “white” he is.
“Just For Us” has been around for a few years, including on Broadway, but our current times, with antisemitism on the rise again, is just right for revisiting Edelman’s story, which he races through so fast that it’s possible to miss a word here and there, which you don’t want to do. It was tightly directed by the late Adam Brace.
Scrolling through social media at home in New York in 2017, Edelman came across an invitation to attend a meeting of—well, Nazis—to discuss their whiteness. He always wanted to be white, he says—preferably a WASP in Boston—so for a lark he decided to, well, infiltrate the meeting. But not incognito.
That’s the central conceit of the show, and Edelman’s depiction of that meeting, on the third floor of an apartment building in Queens—the orange juice and pastries on a side table, the very suspicious host, the cute girl he flirts with, the solemn discussion of all the things that bug white men (like Prince Harry marrying a mixed-race woman)—is chock-full of hilarious details. “So much kvetching in this room!” he tells us.
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the sprinkling of Yiddish throughout or to be amused by Edelman’s depictions of his Jewish upbringing (and a very funny story about his introduction to the concept of Santa Claus). He makes fun of everyone, from his doctor dad to the earnest antisemites in the Queens meeting, always retaining a playful rapport with the audience.
What does it mean to be Jewish? “It means you’ll never be happy,” Edelman’s grandfather tells him. Judaism, says Edelman, is the Hotel California of religions. Indeed.
It takes a particular kind of comic performer to make scary stuff, like a lone Jew in a roomful of Jew-haters, screamingly funny. And Edelman comes full circle, with a new understanding of what it means to be white even if you grew up without Christmas.
As for that silent moment—it’s an exquisite example of how a performer can create the theatrical magic of turning a few hundred people into one united, electrified audience.
“Just For Us” continues through Jan. 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$166 at berkeleyrep.org.