I saw "My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish & I'm in Therapy!" Tuesday night at Booth Playhouse. If my eyes didn't deceive me from the sixth row, at least one of the volumes sitting on the piano was a Reader's Digest Condensed Books collection. If so, it's a perfect symbol for this one-man show: simple, familiar, easily absorbed storytelling with the tough bits cut out.
Writer-actor Steve Solomon stands squarely in the tradition that goes back to Borscht Belt comics of the 1930s and 40s, with the same kinds of humor - ethnic, naughty, self-flagellating - and just as little topicality or edge. He's mastered his conversational, confessional delivery. Half his material was new to me and wittily observant, and he told the other jokes way better than my elementary school classmates 45 years ago.
Despite the title, this show deals mostly with the foibles of Jewish family members and the seemingly incomprehensible burdens of Jewish tradition. (There's a long, funny routine about burying "tainted" silverware.) His Italian mama gets a look-in once in a while, as does a deaf Italian grandmother who mistakes "condo" for "condom" and has a predictably bizarre conversation.
Therapy also gets a slap on the psyche in passing. But the line of Jewish comedians that started 80 years ago with Henny Youngman is on surest ground mocking its own cultural craziness, and that's the center of Solomon's show.
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The first act consists mostly of comments about his youth, parents and kin. After 45 minutes, he says "I gotta pee" and departs. Intermission ends with the sounds of a flushing toilet and water running in a sink. His second act deals with bodily functions more often than a medical school lecture on the excretory system.
Solomon always plays to his strengths and to his audience. He's a terrific mimic and imitator of all kinds of noises, and his tales of Bangladeshi cab drivers and Arabic terrorists set the crowd rocking. (Audience chatter beforehand suggested many fans were transplanted Jews from the north. I'm one myself and heard familiar mid-Atlantic accents.)
I did miss the deeper, darker humor great comics find in their lives. Jews and African-Americans are better than anybody at turning suffering into laughter, but that's not Solomon's game. Even his discussion of an ill-made marriage skims amusingly over the surface of that relationship and is overtaken by jokes about an intestinally challenged uncle.
Solomon's a somewhat smuttier throwback to the Myron Cohens and Shecky Greenes who turned up on "The Ed Sullivan Show" with amazing regularity in the 1960s, cracking jokes the whole family could appreciate without wincing.
If you're nostalgic for that time and that style - and to my surprise, I found I was through much of the show - this is your chance to relive a past that has few outlets today.