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‘Old Jews’ finds new humor in old jokes

Alex Goodrich DarCamerRenee Matthews Tim Kazurinksy star  'Old Jews Telling Jokes' | PHOTO BY DAN REST

Alex Goodrich, Dara Cameron, Renee Matthews, Tim Kazurinksy star in "Old Jews Telling Jokes" | PHOTO BY DAN REST

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When: Through Feb. 16, 2014

Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted

Tickets : $49-$69

Info: (312) 988-9000;

Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission

Updated: November 5, 2013 6:03AM

Jokes are meant to be told, not written about. Half the fun is hearing the laughter that comes in their wake.

There were plenty of laughs Wednesday night at the Royal George Theatre as “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” an engaging if somewhat pedestrian revue opened in its Chicago edition, with five gifted performers doing everything but fry latkes.

This is definitely “Jewish humor light,” decidedly middle-brow, and a little bit raunchy (it’s not for the kids). It clearly is aimed at both “the goyim” who grew up with mainstream Jewish humor, and all those assimilated Jews, urban and suburban, who came of age in the second half of the 20th century — long removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe or slums of New York’s Lower East Side (home of their grandparents or great-grandparents), from the Holocaust (Europe’s insanity), from most religious observance (aside from High Holy Days synagogue visits), and from the more obvious discrimination of university quotas and condo rejections. And frankly, you will find more sophisticated Jewish humor in “A Fiddler on the Roof,” by way of Sholom Aleichem.

Nevertheless, this show, inspired by a popular website, and turned into a popular Off Broadway hit by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent, has some memorable, laugh-out-loud moments. And under Marc Bruni’s direction, Tim Kazurinsky, Gene Weygandt, Alex Goodrich, Renee Matthews and Dara Cameron swiftly lead audiences through the seven ages of man with one constant: The clear plastic slipcover on the couch that sits centerstage is never removed.

Far and away the funniest bit in the show is Kazurinsky’s Yiddish-inflected performance of “Ol’ Man River” — the emblematic song of a weary black dock laborer in “Showboat.” The irony, of course, is that its composer, Jerome Kern, was Jewish.

The most irreverent? It might just be the one about the father who puts the Levinson family’s nail manufacturing business in the hands of his sons, only to have them market it with a billboard featuring the crucifixion. I will tell you no more, but it is very, very funny.

You want blue(ish)? Well, there is the beguiling Dara Cameron explaining how she learned about oral sex (it involves ketchup bottles), and telling of a one-night stand with a hot guy who had a wall of shelves filled with teddy bears. And while we’re on the subject of sex, there is Renee Matthews’ hilarious punch line to the story about her husband who is being sent to jail for six days for stealing a can of six peaches.

Weygandt does a deft turn as a Jew very successfully masquerading as a Wasp being interviewed for membership in a posh athletic club. He blows it all with a single word.

A recurring setting for the stories is a desert island, where a thirsty Russian craves vodka, a Frenchman wishes for wine and a Jew worries that he has diabetes. The ever-guileless Goodrich relates a story about his love for a sheep. And of course there is much merriment in talk about visits to doctors and impossible marriages.

But it is a video clip of the late, great Alan King that suggests the real edginess of classic Jewish humor. Holding a newspaper opened to the obituary page, King walks into the audience and asks a series of women to read the crucial line in all of them. Invariably they read: “He is survived by his wife of ‘x’ years.” Casket closed.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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