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Culture

New York Theater Teems With Jewish Fare

Looking to see a show that has a Jewish slant? Well, here’s some good news. Four off-Broadway comedies have taken the guesswork out of the selection process for you. “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy,” “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” and “Jewtopia” all wisely advertise their orientation within their titles.

“My Mother’s Italian” is midtown’s newcomer, having last week begun a 12-week limited engagement at off-Broadway’s 499-seat Little Shubert Theatre. “I’m not just targeting Jews,” explained Steve Solomon, the play’s writer and star. “Some of the other shows are too stereotypical; that bothers me. I don’t make fun of people in my show.”

A Brooklyn native and a former teacher, Solomon has been touring with “My Mother’s Italian” for more than three years. It’s a one-person show in which he plays more than 30 characters, each of which fills in the portrait of a life torn between chicken fat and olive oil. Solomon claims to have sold “more tickets than Tom Jones” during an Atlantic City stop, and told the Forward that a Montana man once said to him, “You Jewish folk are funny.”

“My Mother’s Italian” arrives in New York at a time when overtly Jewish-themed shows are enjoying great fortune. Approaching its two-year anniversary at the Westside Arts Theatre, “Jewtopia,” which did not receive a warm critical reception in the Big Apple, has now spawned a coffee table book and an upcoming feature film. “Without the Jewish audience, we’d certainly be dead,” said Bryan Fogel, who co-wrote and stars in “Jewtopia” with Sam Wolfson. “It’s 60% to 70% of our audience.” Judy Gold’s “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” and another show, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” recently reopened off-Broadway after successful prior runs. They are filling theaters at a time when off-Broadway in general is struggling.

Of course the prosperity of these productions cannot be attributed solely to their ethnic appeal, especially since other shows with a Jewish bent — including the high-profile “Modern Orthodox,” starring well-known actors Jason Biggs and Molly Ringwald — have failed in recent years. But although it’s clear that not every Judaic-infused show is an inevitable smash, appealing to theatergoing Jews is certainly desirable. “Who goes to the theater? The Jews and the gays,” Gold quipped. “The Jewish audience [has] lots of dangling jewelry, hard candies and strong opinions.”

It’s those strong opinions that help or hurt these productions down the line; however, attracting an initial audience is essential, and having your affiliation right in your title helps do just that. While Solomon stresses that his work has universal appeal, he admits he is hoping to tap into the prime Jewish market with “My Mother’s Italian.”

“It took me a long time to come up with the name,” he said, before adding, “I knew what I needed it to do: Jewish audiences make New York theater.”

Cara Joy David is a freelance writer who thanks her mother, a longtime Forward subscriber, for inspiring this story.

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