Jewtopia mines familiar cultural stereotypes for laughs

In Jewtopia, all Jews kvetch about their poor digestion, send their food back at the deli, avoid using power tools and gripe when their kids date non-Jews.

photo/joyce goldschmid

That’s the world according to “Jewtopia,” the hit off-Broadway comedy making its Bay Area premiere when the Palo Alto Players launches a two-week run at the Lucie Stern Theater Friday, June 11.

Drawing on every Jewish stereotype known to man, the 2003 play became the longest-running original comedy in Los Angeles theater history before moving on to New York, where it ran off-Broadway for nearly 1,100 performances.

For so ostensibly offensive a play, Jewish audiences have embraced the show about two 30-something buddies –– one Jewish, the other a wannabe Jew –– and how each helps the other snare the Jewish American Princess of his dreams.

Along the way, the two have misadventures with JDate, trash a temple Purim party and take part in a riotous Passover seder.

James Gunn, director of the Palo Alto Players production, says if “Jewtopia” offends some in the audience, there’s a good reason.

“It is the job of a comedian to offend occasionally in order to enlighten,” Gunn notes, “or find some common connection. You have to go there.”

Written by comics Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, the play brought out the inner stand-up in Gunn. Well, maybe not so inner. Gunn is a regular on the Bay Area comedy circuit, as well as a director.

“It’s manna from the comedy gods, ” Gunn says of the play. “It was really clear that the production had to have a stand-up comedian’s sensibility about it, in that the actors really needed to have strong comedy bones. Each scene is more of a sketch.”

To that end, Gunn envisioned the play more as an “elaborate night at a comedy club” rather than a Neil Simonesque romp. That means a sparse set and even a brick wall upstage.

“This is a celebration of Judaism,” Gunn says, “and because it’s a celebration, the music never stops; the actors’ energy level never drops below 6,000 percent.”

One of those actors is Brandon Silberstein. He plays swinging single Adam Lipschitz, who never lived down a scandalous full-frontal wardrobe malfunction at his bar mitzvah and never lived up to his mother’s expectation for him to marry a nice Jewish girl.

He has no trouble getting into character.

“You grow up Jewish, you hear about these stereotypes,” he says. “It’s fun to play them out. Some of it is a little over the top, some of it is on par. I’m not saying which is which for my own safety.”

Like his director, he doesn’t think the stereotypes are meant to offend.

Adam (Brandon Silberstein, left) helps Chris (Lance Fuller) study up in “Jewtopia.” photo/joyce goldschmid

“What’s that called?” he asks mockingly. “Oh yeah: satire. Hey, Jews invented self-deprecating humor. For the most part you don’t have the right not to be offended.”

A native of Los Gatos, Silberstein, 24, has been acting since he was 10, and later, as a Stanford University student, started the Robber Barons, a popular sketch-comedy troupe on campus.

Gunn, 46, comes from the same Palo Alto family for which Henry M. Gunn High School is named. He, too, performed in children’s theater, and started doing stand-up comedy in 1988. Later he became director of the Palo Alto Children’s Theater, with a day job teaching drama at local Jewish schools, first Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and currently Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto.

He stages plays with his young students, though racy and salacious as it is, “Jewtopia” would never likely make it to Kehillah. But it did make it to the 1,300-seat Lucie Stern Theater, and Gunn is looking forward to making audiences –– Jewish and non-Jewish — laugh.

“One reason I think it’s really funny is that as much as the [characters] play to stereotypes, there’s an old saying: Only the truth is funny. I think there’s still a heck of a lot of truth in it. So much of it is universal to Jews, and some things have not changed.”


“Jewtopia”
opens in preview Friday, June 11 and runs at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through June 27. Tickets $16-$31. Information: www.paplayers.org or (650) 329-0891.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.