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Jews, God, and History (Not Necessarily in That Order)

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 21, 2022

Michael Takiff
Photo by Pablo Calderón Santiago
Midway through his new solo show, Jews, God, and History (Not Necessarily in That Order), Michael Takiff articulates his own religious paradox: Identifying as an atheist, and he has since high school, Takiff claims that regardless of his non-beliefs, he has "witnessed God's presence." God, he says, was in attendance at his family's Orthodox synagogue "in Elizabeth, New Jersey, every year on Yom Kippur, between the hours of six and seven p.m." The evening combines stand-up, humorous guidelines for Jewish rituals, and pointed jabs at cultural stereotypes, but the most powerful moments occur when Takiff addresses his personal religious conflicts. For those fleeting instants, it seems that, miraculously, God is in the house.

Directed by Brian Lane Green, Jews, God, and History is constructed of seven discreet monologues, or scenes, presented in two acts. The first scene is a comical and satirical riff on the genesis of Judaism. In Takiff's imagining, God appeared to the conscientious shepherd Abraham, who was originally named "Abram." On his new appellation, the man who would become the prophet responds incredulously, "You're putting 'ham' in my name?"

The scene proceeds to show the basis of seemingly random rules and traditional practices. For instance, God decrees and instructs: "Let there be pointless, annoying dietary laws"; "Walk in the path of righteousness all your days"; and "Mutilate your penis." The material is reminiscent of, but not as funny as, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner's brilliant "2000 Year Old Man" sketch.

The second monologue is presented in the manner of a Borscht Belt comedian. The conceit involves a hotel seminar leader offering a workshop titled, "I Wanna Be a Jew. But I Wanna be a Good Jew. How do I do it?" (Matthew Chilton provides the evening's helpful accompanying audio and visual elements.) The harried instructor offers information on rules for eating kosher (but finding ways to bend the gastronomic restrictions), choosing the right shul (that is, the one that is the "least uncomfortable"), and how to observe Shabbos without "going overboard." Once again, the jokes seem overly familiar. There is only so much humor to be mined, for example, from references to mayonnaise on pastrami even if they include (very good) impersonations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bernie Sanders.

In the last two monologues of the first act, Takiff drops the characterizations and adopts his own persona while simultaneously channeling Lenny Bruce. He offers a brutal assault on anti-Semitism and lasting scars of the Holocaust. He then expounds on the stinging offensiveness of a seemingly innocuous and well-meaning "merry Christmas" generally and specifically directed at Jewish people. It's an incisive and extremely potent tirade.

The second act begins with the most beautifully written monologue of the evening, an extended story about his adolescent memories of that aforementioned synagogue in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Weaving recollections of a charismatic rabbi, remembrances of his hardworking father, and recalled feelings of alienation among richer and more observant congregants, Takiff effortlessly makes manifest the evening's three main topics, "Jews, God, and history." Without relying on shtick or celebrity impressions, he conveys the humor, musicality, and mysticism that even a professed atheist might find moving.

Following this monologue is an Alan King-like sketch featuring God as a Las Vegas stand-up comedian. The routine becomes angrier and angrier as God gets warmed up, but the power of the message is diminished as many of the issues had previously and more honestly been discussed. The evening concludes in territory in which Takiff is much more at home: his family. In this coda, he poignantly recounts the death of his father on Christmas (and another reason to find the holiday offensive).

Running more than two hours with an intermission, Jews, God, and History overstays its welcome by about twenty minutes. There is a fair amount of repetition, especially in the harangues. Personally, I have always subscribed to the unwritten rule in the show-biz bible that a solo performance piece or stand-up act shalt not exceed ninety minutes.

Takiff presents a feast of comic and satiric delicacies, some of which are suitably bitter and hard to swallow. Indeed, there should be a certain amount of discomfort in a comedy smorgasbord like this, but the show would benefit from eliminating the trayf. Therefore, while I am only a reviewer, if I were a dramaturg (or a mohel, for that matter), I would have just one word of advice for Michael Takiff: cut.

Jews, God, and History (Not Necessarily in That Order)
Through June 5, 2022
The Siggy Theater at The Flea (20 Thomas Street, New York, NY)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: