Carol Burnett once said that comedy is tragedy plus time. Stand-up comic Judy Gold may have reversed that formula.
In her new one-woman show, "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother," the tall, strapping tummler with a brash, relentless style steps back from the mike, literally, to explore the sources of her material - in other words, her life - in quieter, more serious tones. She can still mine jokes from misery ("I've got to make a living," as she puts it), but in "25 Questions" she also faces pain and doubt without winking or flinching.
She opens the show in her relative comfort zone: at the microphone kvetching about her mom, who neatly fits the possessive, manipulative, guilt-inducing stereotype of the Jewish mother. But Gold quickly stops short and realizes that she is herself a Jewish mother. Sure, she's an unconventional specimen: a single lesbian raising two boys conceived by artificial insemination, one borne by her, the other by her ex-partner. "I'm like a documentary premiering at a gay film festival in Berlin: 'Das Orthodyke,'" she quips.
Indeed, though politically liberal, she considers herself a conservative Jew; she keeps a kosher home and she admits to some overprotectiveness of her kids. So just who is she laughing at when she invokes the hoary old stereotype?
Gold set out to answer that question in earnest, interviewing dozens of Jewish mothers across the United States over the past five years, along with playwright Kate Moira Ryan. Settling occasionally into a chair, she enacts brief excerpts of these women's answers to the questions of the title, which range from the soul-searching ("What is your biggest regret?") to the culturally specific ("Would you sit shiva if your child married a non-Jew?") to the philosophical ("What is God to you?").
Gold isn't going to give Lily Tomlin and Anna Deavere Smith a run for their money, but she does turn this docu-theater device into a tender, pointed and often moving colloquy of voices which, in their very diversity, belie the notion that there's any single Jewish-mother type.
Yes, there are a few harridans who make Judy's overbearing mother look good by comparison. But there are also breezy Reform Jews who describe their own mothers as pillars of support, Orthodox women who've found a measure of peace within the strictures of their observance, and older Holocaust survivors with astonishing reservoirs of resilience and optimism. In one memorable and touching bit, a Chinese woman from San Francisco speaks sunnily about converting to Judaism for her husband. Gold plays her with a beatific ambivalence. She also takes her time, to stunning effect, with a few sobering monologues near the show's end.
There's a bit too much therapeutic boilerplate and glad-handing filler between these high points to call this much of a play, exactly. It's more a solo performance piece with stand-up as its springboard. But Gold has found the buried treasure a few lucky comics discover as they mature: that an audience's intent silence can be more precious than its laughter.