Journey To ‘Jewtopia’

I was unsure of what I was going to find, and kind of uneasy, as I rushed through the front doors into the empty lobby of the Westside Theater. Empty that is, except for a man in an official-looking suit. “Joseph P.,” I told him “Party of two.” This is all about my journey to ‘Jewtopia’.

“Right this way,” he replied after locating my tickets. “You’ll have to wait at the steps until the scene ends,” he continued, as he led me and my friend into the theater. “The play began five minutes ago.”

As we breezed past the ticket taker and up the steps, my eyes adjusted to the dim luminescence and I reflected on how I’d gotten to this show. It must have been, to some degree, a step in a different direction for Fresh Ink to send a writer to a play.

The public relations agent for the play treated me like I was a regular reporter and after the show, I would have interview time with the leading actors, which was awesome. I’m sure this was a first or at least a second or something for a teen reporter.

I did a double take as I noticed that the audience appeared to be couples, predominantly over 50. Was this show relevant to teenagers at all? The scene came to an end and we were led to our seats — which we ended up forfeiting to an over-50 couple already planted there in exchange for seats closer to the stage. We sat down to watch “Jewtopia.”

I live in a kind of Jewtopia. In my part of Teaneck, you’d be hard-pressed to find a stretch of two non-Jewish homes in a row. On Saturdays, my neighborhood is car-less as everyone is walking through the streets to the synagogue. I settled in to watch a fictionalized interpretation of the place through the eyes of playwrights and actors Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson.

The play is centered around non-Jewish Chris O’Connell, the son of an army general played by Fogel, who has decided he wants to marry a Jewish girl because — as he reasons — he will never have to make another decision in his life.

He enlists the help of his Jewish friend Adam Lipschitz, played by Wolfson, to teach him how to impersonate a Jew (i.e., throw in as many Yiddish words as possible and become a hypochondriac). In exchange for his help, O’Connell will lead Lipschitz to Jewtopia, an online Jewish dating service where Jewish girls are ready for commitment at the touch of a key.

All this goes on while the characters are navigating the exaggerated oddball nature of Jewish mothers and other characters. That sums up the one-act play originally presented at a festival in California. Later scenes and the second act are commentary and conclusion.

At my age, never having to make a decision is not my aspiration. So how could I possibly relate to the story? This play made me wonder if maybe when we’re given too much freedom we get tired of that privilege and want it to be taken away.

The conversations in the play seemed a lot like conversations I have with my friends about girls, except for the whole searching for Jewish girls part. I don’t hear too much of that because in my two groups of friends it is either assumed that the girl will be Jewish or it doesn’t matter at all.

What intrigued me most about “Jewtopia” were the young actors. They were not so incredibly different from me — they come from Jewish backgrounds and were in my position just a few years ago. I always wonder when people who have cool jobs (actor, basketball player, musician, astronaut, cowboy, ninja turtle, etc.) realize that that is definitely the job for them. I eagerly await the day when I’ll realize that my calling is to be James Bond or the president or Picasso or whatever.

“I think I knew when I was like 9, like around 8 or 9,” Sam Wolfson says about wanting to be a playwright. “I started doing little plays and stuff and I really liked it.”

“Not to one-up ya here Wolf, I’ve actually been semi-profesh since I was 9 … I really knew my whole life,” says Jackie Tohn who portrays eight separate crazy Jewish girls in the play, from Adam’s failed romance “fire-tushy” to his little sister to Samantha, the Jewish girl of Chris’ dreams.

When I asked her how she manages to play all eight roles, she likened it to the extension of the human neck by the successive fitting of copper rings as practiced by the women of the Padaung tribe of Myanmar.

“At this point, it’s kind of just like the nine of us are happily living in my brain,” she says. “If there was one less role it wouldn’t be easier. One less ring, not gonna’ make a difference.”

In the play,  Adam is an unaffiliated Jew who never really cared about Judaism and whose family only worried about religion’s cultural facets.

“I’m basically the guy in the play, a bad Jew,” says Sam about his own religious upbringing. “I went to temple two times a year, nothing serious, had a bar mitzvah, dressed like Don Johnson … right now I’m dating a half-Jewish girl. Does that count for anything?”

“His mother’s lucky to get half,” laughs Jackie, who describes her Jewish background as Reform and mostly centered around her movie-themed bat mitzvah. “You either sat at the cinematography table or the director’s table. It was really, really cool. My table, the dais, was the actors’ table.”

“My family would like me to meet up with a Jewish girl,” says Sam wistfully. “I told them, I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try my best.”

This play can pretty much make anyone in the audience laugh. “I was looking around,” recollects Sam. “We have 14-year-olds through 90-year-olds. I mean, it’s crazy.”

“I’m not too far out of high school, and I was even closer to high school when I tried out for this play, but when I read the script it cracked me up. I mean you’re either the parents who are doing this to your kids or you’re the kids who are getting this done to you by your parents,” adds Jackie.

I agree with that. I have been in the situations portrayed onstage, and my parents are a far cry from the exaggerated caricatures in the play, but nonetheless, things resonate. I didn’t think any of the content was offensive or inappropriate, and I would definitely recommend this play to anyone looking for some good laughs. ?

“Jewtopia” was playing at the Westside Theatre Downstairs, 407 W. 43rd St.

Teaneck High School
Teaneck, N.J.