November 20, 2018

JWT’s ‘Not That Jewish’ offers the group’s latest fresh, female voice

“Not That Jewish,” an autobiographical one-woman show with comedian Monica Piper, recalls Billy Crystal’s similarly heartfelt “700 Sundays.” Both are monologue performances by Jewish comics who grew up in show-biz-oriented families in Brooklyn, where weekends were spent at the ballpark watching Mickey Mantle. Both deal with the death of a parent, and both blend the funny with the moving, the intimate with the broad. 

Piper’s “Not That Jewish,” directed by Eve Brandstein, was commissioned by the Los Angeles-based Jewish Women’s Theater (JWT) and is running at the organization’s recently acquired 1,500-square-foot theater space, The Braid, in Santa Monica. The show is the synthesis of several short pieces Piper has been performing over the past several years at JWT salons, performances that take place in homes all over L.A. 

The show, which is 80 minutes long, will now run until Dec. 21, having been extended a week from popular demand. Ronda Spinak, artistic director at JWT and producer of the show, said “Not That Jewish” deserved a feature-length production because of the strength of the material. The title draws on Piper’s reservations about performing a show centered on her Jewish background: During a phone interview, Spinak recalled a conversation she had with Piper in which Spinak suggested that Piper turn her short pieces into a full-length show. 

“I said, ‘We need to turn your stories into a one-woman show,’ and she said, ‘I’m really not that Jewish.’ I said, ‘That’s the title! Because the fact is, though you don’t consider yourself that Jewish, you are a cultural Jew, and your pieces have a very cultural sensibility.’ ”

The work spans Piper’s life, from her Yiddish-inflected childhood to her turbulent adult years, describing two failed marriages, one to a great-looking gentile who calls her a “Jewish American princess” and one to a musician who winds up having a drug problem.

The show also delves into Piper’s life after her marriages: her career in stand-up and comedy writing — and winning an Emmy as the head writer of the animated television series “Rugrats.”

Piper also recounts her decision to adopt a child as well as her father’s death from Alzheimer’s.

The no-frills stage contains only a couple of pieces of furniture, a bookshelf and a chair. Occasionally, projected onto the blank wall behind the performer are key words describing the themes of the show, which serve to divide the play into neat sections.

The piece is often irreverent. In one scene, the adult Piper attends the anniversary party of an aunt and uncle at a hotel in New York City and meets Mickey Mantle, her childhood hero and crush, who propositions her for the evening. Before she gives him an answer, she runs back over to her father, who has been watching the scene unfold from his table nearby, to tell him about the conversation. 

“F— Mickey Mantle,” her father says, after hearing about the Mick’s offer. 

“F— Mickey Mantle? Or f— Mickey Mantle?” Piper asks her dad.

“Not That Jewish” is the latest in a string of JWT shows that offer fresh takes of Jewish women. Previous material has explored the lives of Persian women, including Jewish Journal columnist Gina Nahai, in a piece titled “Saffron and Rosewater.” An upcoming show will team members of the Los Angeles Russian-Jewish community with JWT.

“We’re Jewish Women’s Theater, and it’s really important we show the spectrum of Jewish women, and Jews in particular, so from all different cultures, all different age ranges, all different denominations,” Spinak said. “These are human stories. What I don’t cast and what I don’t do is the cliché. When you talk to me about content that isn’t right for our crowd, I’m not going to tell the old joke about the Jewish mom.”

JWT recently began its seventh salon season, and although the organization now has its own event space — Piper’s show is the inaugural performance — the group will continue to stage salons in homes, Spinak told the Journal. 

Spinak expressed excitement about the group’s latest show, as well as its writer and performer. 

“She’s a brilliant writer and a brilliant performer, and I feel so amazingly blessed to have been working with her,” Spinak said.

JWT is a nonprofit project that has fiscal sponsorship from Community Partners. Philanthropist Gail Solo provided a key grant for the commissioning of “Not That Jewish,” which is JWT’s inaugural commissioned work.