Jokes are a matter of taste. Let me retract that. Humor is in the sensibility of the beholder. Different people find different things, from physical comedy to one-line zingers, funny. Jokes are often the absence of taste. Jokes are a matter of preference.
The barrage of Borscht Belt blockbusters, and modern variations, updated because of technology or other contemporary advancement, is bound to elicit everything from a groan or chuckle to full-out laughter in “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” an amiable revue by Daniel Okrent and Peter Gethers at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse — under the auspices of leasing impresarios Philip Roger Roy and Dana Matthow.
Laughs can ebb and swell. As Abraham Lincoln said, you can’t convulse all of the people all the time. The important thing is laughs are constant. “Old Jews Telling Jokes” entertains because it relies on the elemental and familiar. Punch lines rule, and they often work when you know what’s coming. Okrent and Gethers do not seek to provide pithy commentary or thought-provoking ideas. Their obvious aim is to collect a wide range of quickly told jokes and stories and present them in middle-of-the-road fashion for fun.
Only fun. “Old Jews Telling Jokes” is not a work of art. Okrent, Gethers, Roy, and Matthow would laugh heartily if they thought you expected that. Directed by Matt Silva, it’s a rapid-fire exercise in dropping set up salvos and getting yuks. Yes, the authors include some sentiment in the form of sweet, or bittersweet, stories about the five characters in whose mouths they’ve put their material. Sure, there’s some change of pace and movement of scenery to give the audience moments to relax. In general, “Old Jews Telling Jokes” is about the silly, snappy, or unexpected payoff to simple questions or purposely extended stories. Sprinkles of irony are about as arch as it gets. It includes some sketch comedy but relies mostly on time-honored formulas, as in an Irishman has a dry mouth and has a toot of whiskey, an Italian has a dry mouth and has a glass of wine, a Jew has a dry mouth and kvetches, “Oy, I have diabetes!”
There’s a lot of “oy,” and shoulder shrugging, and direct looks to the audience as if to say, “You were expecting, maybe, something serious?” Don’t. “Old Jews Telling Jokes” is a tribute to the veteran tummlers who populated Catskills resorts and television variety shows once upon a time. One of the best and funniest moments in the show comes when the late Alan King is seen on tape doing a smart routine in a Las Vegas nightclub.
King goes into the showroom audience and asks people to read newspaper articles he provides for them. Each of the articles includes the phrase, “Survived by his wife.” Each time someone reads that, King looks to the crowd and repeats, “Survived by his wife.” “See the pattern there?” he asks the assembled. “You don’t hear anyone reading, ‘Survived by her husband.’ No, here’s a page of seven obits, all from today’s newspaper. I clipped the page myself, and six of them say, ‘Survived by his wife.’ The other one says, ‘He leaves behind a wife.’ I guess the obit editor wanted to change things up a little.”
You see the way the humor bends. It’s full of ba-rump-bump rimshots. King’s is the only bit not done by “Old Jews’” talented cast and the only bit that goes on for more than 30 seconds, but it is indicative of the kind of chestnut “Old Jews Telling Jokes” peddles.
Not all of the “Jews” on stage are old. From my observation, none of them are. Sharon Geller, for instance, wears a wig — a sheitel you’d think twice to put on a dog — for much of the show to age her. She is joined by other oldsters David S. Jack and Bob Greenberg and two representatives of the younger generation, Jessica Saul and Jude Flannelly. (Flannelly? How’d he get in there?) Together and individually, they present jokes. Pure and simple.
Okrent and Gethers organize their material by subject, so everything from dating, marriage, employment, dealing with children, health, and resisting hearing aids is covered. One-liners Moses tried on Aaron are mixed with newer material. Classics are mixed with bits the writers devised. All is clearly meant as fun, and while you won’t think you’re at a Jackie Mason show, there’s no reason to complain and much to enjoy.
My one ongoing cavil was the size and volume of the performances. Everything is delivered in big, broad scale. Some better inflections are lost in the need to yell and approach all as if each joke is part of an “Oy, gevalt” tumult. Relaxing the tone would have made some of the material sharper and earned even more laughs.
David S. Jack is the most subtle of the comedians. Bob Greenberg is the broadest. In his defense, he does get the audience going. Including with his continual Tevye dances. I liked Flannelly’s approach to his material. Geller is a clockwork master of timing. Saul is equally adept as an actress and as a seller of zingers. Joe Binck and Ryan George provide a utilitarian set. Jillian Rose Keys had a good eye for overall character in planning the costumes.
Old Jews Telling Jokes, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania, through Sunday, November 22, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 6 p.m., and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 p.m. $45 to $65. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org