JEWTOPIA – Shticking, Kvetching – and Hilarious

by Jack Shaw

When I had heard The Collaborative Act Studio production of JEWTOPIA was fun, I never imagined I’d have a problem with the runaway laughter. There seemed to be no stopping it–except for short lulls when the actors changed the scene. There were two ladies in front of me who couldn’t stop laughing, and it was contagious. I’ll grant you there is little depth to JEWTOPIA other than we should all be who we are and let others be who they are, but it’s all done in great fun and spirit of never-taking-itself too seriously.

The cast of JEWTOPIA, a Collaborative Act Studio production at The Ritz Theatre through June 25.

This production is indeed for those in search of a good time. They’ll find the laughs here exhausting and that’s not a bad thing. For theatre purists, don’t expect deep meaning, but a well-acted, well-directed production, wired with great sound. I loved some of the music in between scenes, as well as the terrific use of sound effects. Merge all that with comedic timing and skill of its actors, the laughter is practically nonstop.

Who cares about deep thoughts? Well, I do some times, but if anyone can bring out that hidden meaning in the satire and shtick, it’s us. When we stop afterwards to think about why we laughed at this joke or that bit, maybe what we learn is that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. We live in a complex world filled with different peoples, cultures and beliefs. It’s a big world. We need to accept one another and get along. Simple as that.

The audience is guaranteed a good time provided, they too, don’t take this play too seriously. There is some serious stereotyping–all done in good fun. Most of the play’s humor comes from satirizing Jewish stereotypes: Jewish mothers, Jews dating, Jews ordering in restaurants, Jews with tools, and talk of circumcision (a sure winner for a laugh like hearing a toilet flush on stage). There’s some crude humor, along with gay buddy jokes and slapstick to fill in the gaps; continuous mocking of stereotypes can be exhausting for an audience, too, and not in a good way. Whether it’s enough, not enough, or too much is for individual tastes. But I don’t think any of the bits are done with any mean intentions whatsoever; at least it didn’t seem that way.

This actually a long play for a comedy. Most comedies try to stay around 90 minutes, but this one doesn’t seem too long. It’s only at the end you realized you’ve been there more than two hours. The play is not for young children, but the teens can probably appreciate the satire and other humor (sexual innuendo).

Two friends meet at a Jewish singles event and discover they know each other. Something is off. “Adam Lipschitz” (Jonathan Fink) learns “Chris O’Connell” (Patrick Poole) is there pretending to be Jewish to meet a Jewish girl and “never have to make a decision again.” But it’s not just “Chris” who is there under false pretenses. His old friend “Adam,” who’s Jewish but would rather date shiksas (non-Jewish girls), is there to find the Jewish girl only for his mother’s sake. You can draw the obvious conclusion: they make a pact to help each other in their individual quests.

The rest is the training for both (grooming and costuming), the dates (very bad dates), and family (very…something). All toward the end–making “Chris” Jewish enough for Allison Cohen and making “Adam,” something of a catch for a Jewish girl in a hurry. Predictable fun, but fun nonetheless and done with incredible panache by this cast and crew.

In 1997, two guys created a cyber empire, a Jewish dating service–a dot com. This “dot com” later became a part of Match dot com. At the same time, two other guys, Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson wrote and performed in a 15-minute comedy sketch about two former neighbors who meet at a Jewish singles mixer — one Jewish boy and torn between a penchant for shiksas (non-Jewish girls) and wanting to please his mother; the other an Irish-Catholic with a yen for a Jewish girls, especially one “Allison Cohen.” It was such a big hit with local audiences, they decided to turn it into a full-length play. Thus, JEWTOPIA became a reality.

Critics said JEWTOPIA would make it in spite of what they thought. They thought audiences would be offended and probably some more sensitive members were, but audiences kept coming and coming. The full-length version premiered in 2003 in Los Angeles, where it ran for a year, then ran three-and-a-half years off-Broadway and played various houses around the country. So, one could say they scored a huge hit by most any standard. Still, critics kvetched about the satire of “Jewish American families in all their neurotic weirdness,” not liking the fact its audience appeal trumped their critical appraisals and judgments of acceptable theatre art. They also said the co-creators, Fogel and Wolfson, “being good bar-mitzvahed boychicks themselves could get away with it” — and they do.

Stand out cast members for me have to be the leads, Patrick Poole and Jonathan Fink for their impeccable comedic timing and energy. However, the cast as a whole did a terrific job in multiple roles–while Poole and Fink had the majority of face time. I thought Deborah Bergen was adorable in her small but pivotal role as “Rachel Khan,” the Mongolian doctor. Kudos to the entire cast and crew for a memorable evening of fun, and to heck with theatre art and the more profound human dilemma. Some days we just need a good laugh.

Make sure you get to see it. By the way, if you saw MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS (also a fine comedy production by The Collaborative Act Studio), don’t expect the same kind of comedy here. And, that’s not a bad thing, is it? Theatre doesn’t always have to be art to be entertaining. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it’s true–certainly in this case.


by Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson
Directed by Ted Wioncek III
June 16-25, 2011
Collaborative Act Studio
at The Ritz Theatre
915 White Horse Pk
Haddon Township, NJ

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