In Alex Edelman’s solo show Just For Us, he talks about being the target of anti-Semitism online, and going undercover to a white nationalists meeting. And while what happened next is a mystery left for those who go to see the show, there is a moment Edelman reveals that didn’t make it in. “There was a Sports Illustrated for kids on a coffee table. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, racists subscribe,’’’ he says with a bit of a laugh. He quickly clarifies, “I'm sure that those aren't the only people that subscribe.” He goes on, “When it was happening it was like, ‘That’s surreal.’”
In Just For Us, Edelman shares every absurd, poignant, and laugh-inducing detail of how he ended up at a meeting of white nationalists in Queens, New York—and his revelations from the evening. The solo show marks Edelman’s Broadway debut, and currently runs at the Hudson Theatre through August 19. The comedian, and his solo show, have had quite the road to the Main Stem. He played internationally in Australia, London, and Edinburgh, as well as domestically in Washington, D.C. and Boston. Just For Us then arrived Off-Broadway where it extended six times across three theatres.
The bizarre is one of the things Edelman values most. As he explains, “I think my love of live performance and hiking and ceramics and pond hockey and the noise at a diner, they're all connected to the same thing. I want a fulsome experience.” And he acknowledges that such experiences range from those “filled with transgression” to ones “filled with suspense or unexpected civility.” The comedian says, “I want a life that is filled with strangeness. Nothing makes me happier than seeing, like, a dog strapped to a man's back on a motorcycle.” It’s little surprise then that he vividly remembers the Sports Illustrated Kids on the coffee table.
But there’s also a deeper philosophy that underpins Edelman’s hunt to experience the bizarre. In referencing a theory within contemporary art, he explains that he subscribes to the idea that “the stranger the thing, the more interesting the truth that we are potentially able to reach about ourselves.” And for the comedian, that’s an important thread in Just For Us. “That's why people go to India, ‘to find themselves,’ right?” He emphasizes a heavy use of air quotes. “People will make fun of that, and it is worth making fun of. But also, people do that because what they are hoping to do is see the outline of who they are against the background of a place that isn't theirs.” And if there’s a top five of such places for a Jewish comedian, a white nationalist meeting would certainly make it.
Among the surreal and the prejudicial, Edelman discovered more about his desire to fit in. “The story is really about assimilation. No matter what our background is, we change things about ourselves to be more or less acceptable,” explains Edelman. “I'm not a moron, I know about the world that we live in. But, I really want everyone to let go of their hatreds and judgments.” Edelman hopes that through his work as a performer he can help affect change and create bridges between people. “Bringing people together to laugh is a rare and beautiful thing, especially at tough stuff and especially when someone may not agree with you…The show is a polemic, but it's for how important conversation is. It’s a plea for a face-to-face chat, and understanding—which doesn't mean acceptance.”
For Edelman, his motives to bring people together and his approach to how he conducts himself as a performer overlap with his Jewish identity. “I think Judaism encourages adherence to tradition, but also a desire to reinvent it and constantly question,” he says. And that’s been part of how he’s approached Just For Us and the way in which he tells his story: honoring the comedic tradition with the heavy focus on jokes while integrating it with a focus on storytelling partially guided by Mike Birbiglia, who has taken his own solo shows to Broadway and who serves as a producer on Just For Us.
Drawing out the surreal—and the opportunities to find larger truths in it—for his audiences while balancing laughs with storytelling comes down to what Edelman calls “curation.” “The story has exaggerations for comedy,” he explains. “When you're presenting something artistically, you have to decide which surreal you're going to draw out and what you're going to ignore,” he explains. And while he maintains that you can’t sacrifice laughter, solo show comedians “understand that there are things besides laughter that are really important…and some laughs are more important and interesting than others.”
Helping Edelman curate those moments was his dear friend, and the show’s director, Adam Brace. It’s a collaboration that is presently bittersweet for Edelman as Brace passed away after a short illness in May, and posthumously makes his Broadway debut with Just For Us. Edelman reveals that the solo show really began when he sat down with Brace to tell him the story over “a ginger beer and a real beer.” Edelman recalls, “He would ask what he called ‘provocations,’” or as Edelman explained them, insightful questions that dove sometimes into the uncomfortable moments and truths. Edelman even refers to Brace as a dramaturg for his way of digging in. “That's really what he did. There's no one who understood me as well as Adam.”
“I really don't like the term solo show because it's such a misnomer,” Edelman says. “I think of the show as belonging to the people who have worked on it. And Adam was a huge part of it. The idea that I'm going to have to do it without him is devastating.” He shares that he’s trying to take comfort in the Hudson Theatre itself. Playing Broadway is a dream come true for Edelman, a self-professed theatre lover. (His favorite Broadway show is The Producers because “Nothing touches Mel Brooks for me,” he says.) But the Hudson has taken another layer of special meaning for the comedian as it was Brace who picked it when they were discussing which venue on the Main Stem to mount Just For Us at. “We were deciding between theatres, and Adam sent me this video of it. What a nice venue for the most gorgeous staging of what's going to be our final work together.”