Jason Alexander is bringing a bit of the Borscht Belt to Los Angeles. The "Seinfeld" star, who's a Tony-winning actor as well as artistic director of L.A.'s financially challenged Reprise Theatre Company, is directing a new comedy-musical revue based on the 1960s humor albums "You Don't Have to Be Jewish" and "When You're in Love the Whole World Is Jewish."
The albums, written by the comedy team Bob Booker and George Foster, feature sketches, short bits and songs that poke fun at Jewish culture. The new incarnation is "When You're in Love the Whole World Is Jewish," a 90-minute staged show about a young mensch, his Gentile girlfriend and the rabbi who provides a road map to Jewish life.
In a comedic culture heavy with irony, profanity and often harsh-edged jokes, Alexander says, there's a place for a gentler style of comedy that shamelessly mixes nostalgia and schmaltz.
What drew you to these old Jewish humor recordings?
They're albums I knew as a kid. The musicality of these old jokes and routines became very much ingrained in me. When I was a beginning actor and it was suggested to me that I might have a sketch career in comedy, I went back to these albums to look at them as a source of timing and rhythm and the music of what makes us laugh.
Did you write the book for the show?
No. We're essentially using the original script from the albums. Booker was [a writer] for "The First Family" [a popular JFK parody], and he was really at the forefront of this sort of sketch comedy album back in the day. The only time we're deviating is if there are references we don't think will play. We're sprucing up what's there, bringing it up to date.
Is part of updating it massaging the humor to make it more politically correct or otherwise contemporary?
We're not worried about politically correct. We're just worried about comedically correct. We're kind of timeless in our approach to the material; we're not trying to say that it is 2013, nor are we putting it specifically in the '60s or '70s. But the time period of the people represented is older, so we're allowing it to have that flavor.
You wrote one of the songs for the show. What's it about?
One of the things we had not looked at in a sketch was the old generalization that Jews eat and Gentiles drink. So I wrote a song called "Let's Eat," where we discuss all the major Jewish holidays and how they dump us into eating. And the little shiksa girl gets up — it's all in song — and she goes through all the cocktails. It has the feel of one of those klezmer bands.
With the success of shows like "Old Jews Telling Jokes," which opened off-Broadway this past summer, do you think there's a resurgence of this kind of humor?
I don't know. I didn't think this kind of humor had a generation left that understood it. I didn't think someone in their 20s would think it was particularly funny or could relate to it. What we've been finding is, the jokes are still relatable, there are still things that tend to be true. Even though a lot of the jokes are told in this old-fashioned way, there's still enough contemporary connection that people seem to get it.
Do you have a favorite joke from the show?
A good sample of the [show's] sensibility is when one person asks:
"Did you see what went on between Israel and Palestine yesterday"?
And the other replies:
"I didn't see anything. I live in the back."
What's going on over at Reprise Theatre Company?
We've been in total creative hiatus since about a year ago. We wanted to come back with a real artistic mission that was hopefully more meaningful to the arts community of L.A. than what we had been doing — minimalist revivals of primarily classic musicals. We've been shopping for a new home and are now very close to making a wonderful relationship with a place. When we do come back, part of what we'll do is get into original works of plays and musicals as well as expand the category of what we think of as theater.
'When You're in Love, the Whole World Is Jewish'
Where: Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles
When: Opens Friday. Performances Thursdays-Sundays through March 10.
Information: (323) 655-7679 or http://www.worldisjewishtheplay.com
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