April 20, 2024
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Sometimes a Little Irreverence Is a Good Thing: Ashley Blaker’s ‘Goy Friendly’

Prepare yourself for 90 minutes of unrelenting, side-splitting laughter. Ashley Blaker may be slight of build, but he is a giant in terms of his facility with the English language. Using double entendre and clever word play steeped in humor, he ably crafts a show around Orthodox Jewish practices and highlights for his audiences the contradictions and absurdities of contemporary Orthodox life. He can create high comedy out of the mundane.

This one-man show, written and performed by Blaker, is a slightly different iteration of his show that premiered at last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Just to put his celebrity in context, the Fringe Festival is a highly respected international arts showcase for innovative productions. Despite proportionally fewer Jews in the Edinburgh audience than in New York, Blaker’s success there prompted Darren Lee Cole, artistic director of the Soho Playhouse, to bring this production to Manhattan.

This original version of “Goy Friendly” goes beyond Blaker’s own experiences navigating and assessing the Orthodox Jewish world as a baal teshuva. It focuses less on his own spiritual journey and more on an acerbic look at the everyday life and belief system of Orthodox Jewry. His intention is to make Orthodoxy comprehensible to a non-Jew, so “Goy Friendly” is a bit like user friendly, at least the way Blaker interprets it.

“Friendly” here actually has a dual meaning—to make concepts and principles of Judaism accessible to the layman and to be welcoming to the non-member of the tribe. And that is exactly what Ashley Blaker does. The premise of the show is that he wants Imran, his devoutly Muslim friend and colleague in comedy, to understand Judaism, specifically from an Orthodox Jew’s perspective. He does so through a mix of thoroughly British dry humor, pointed parodies of Jews (and Jewish stereotypes) and satire of a range of Brits, Americans and Israelis. Although almost nothing is sacrosanct enough to be off limits for ribbing, and the show may be edgy on occasion, it always remains respectful.

Initially one might wonder how the Soho Playhouse’s non-Jewish audience (which Blaker estimates is between one-half to two-thirds of the total, depending on the performance) would respond to what may seem to some as insider humor. Well, that seems to be a non-issue, as the non-Jews laugh as heartily as the Jews—or more so.

The initial foray into Jewish life begins with a breakdown of the Ten Commandments, but to the end of making them clear to Imran, and Blaker’s non-Jewish audience, he provides examples that might to some seem a stretch—for instance, not coveting your neighbor’s ox, or worshiping a calf as an idol—and finds comedic ways to explain how Jews might interpret and obey these commandments. Nevertheless, as central to Judaism as the Ten Commandments are, Blaker realizes he needs to find a way to deconstruct a goy-friendly version of them that will give his friend a window into Orthodox Jewry in 2020. In Blaker’s commandment schema, kashrut comes in at #10. This becomes a hilarious window into Orthodox culinary preferences—but spoiler alert: this is as far as it goes for content; see the show and roll with laughter yourselves.

In terms of performance style, Blaker often breaks with the famous Fourth Wall, that invisible stage marker that separates the performer and his or her theatrical reality from the audience. Blaker glances at the audience frequently, and so keeps them engaged, but stops short of involving them in the show. As he described after the performance, he wanted to create a more theatrical piece rather than a stand-up comedy routine. In this, he certainly has succeeded. The low lighting and multimedia—cleverly used voice overs and slides—augment the tongue-in-cheek and sometimes riotously funny humor inherent in Blaker’s references to ordinary Orthodox activities. There are also over-the-top graphics like the Jew-o-Meter versus the Muslimeter, which might be frowned upon in a political context. Yet knowing the warm relationship between Imran and Blaker, these graphics are good-naturedly irreverent in the show.

What is Blaker trying to achieve? As he explained after the show, his goal is to get the greatest number of people to see it—Jews and non-Jews of diverse backgrounds. In an increasingly anti-Semitic world, diversity and understanding may not always stem the tide of hatred, but understanding and respect for differences are steps in that direction. Works like “Goy Friendly” use humor to increase understanding. But for a Jew like Blaker is it OK to see Judaism through the lens of humor and not to take Orthodoxy seriously? The answer Blaker was given by a rabbi he respects was that it’s OK to take your religion seriously, but not to take yourself too seriously. Truly, and thankfully, Blaker does not.

“Goy Friendly” runs at the Soho Playhouse through February 23. For more information, call (212) 691-1555.

By Rachel S. Kovacs 

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