You Sure You’re Jewish?

Four executives from an unnamed corporation sit around a table and discuss the various items on their agenda.  The first: should airport security devices be allowed to take pictures of your genitals?  The second: should pizza be banned in public school cafeterias?  The third: should we kill the Jews?

Ken Kaissar’s A Modest Suggestion, which takes its title from Jonathan Swift’s satirical masterpiece, ostensibly uses the setup to address two questions: why does genocide occur?  And who, exactly, is a Jew?  Though, in fact, it spends most of its time on the second.

Why would they kill the Jews?  One of the executives, named A (Jeff Auer), says in the baritone voice of a newscaster, “For starters, it’s been done a lot.”  Another, C (Russell Jordan), is shocked.  He had no idea.  Several other reasons for and against are thrown around: they are stingy, but they make good movies.  And perhaps, it might just feel good.

Unsatisfied with their work thus far, they kidnap a Jew, Adam Miller (Ethan Hova), and interrogate him about his Jewishness.  It turns out he is an atheist, eats bacon, doesn’t have a lot of money, and only goes to temple on the high holidays, if at all.  When asked what makes him Jewish, he says he tries to be a good person.  The executives don’t get it.  “Find five more Jews,” says Adam.  “You’ll be even more confused.”  Deciding that Miller couldn’t possibly be a real Jew, they kidnap a man dressed in Orthodox garb: a good guess (Robert W. Smith).  He conforms more with their expectations: he loves herring, never touches pork, attends shul every day, and is “careful” with his money.  But when asked what makes him Jewish, he gives the same answer as his predecessor: he tries to be a good person.

A Modest Suggestion raises questions that could never be answered in an eighty-minute one-act play.  And still, its provocative premise is never quite earned; it feels more like an extended version of the podcast Old Jews Telling Jokes than a genuine investigation into antisemitism and Jewish identity.  Mr. Kaisser makes sure to hit on all the key points, but never with very much depth.  Admittedly, it is often very funny in a way that feels cozy and familiar, like your father telling stories after a couple of glasses of wine.  Executive D (Bob Greenberg) may have the greatest line of the night when he asks of Miller, “Why is the guy different from all other guys?”  And, really, who doesn’t want to hear a room full of goyim talking about “la-high-ims” and “hootz-pah”?  Ultimately, Mr. Kaisser has produced a very well written amateur play.  Perhaps in time he will return to the material with greater sophistication—I look forward to it.

A Modest Suggestion runs through May 27th at the Studio Theatre.  410 W. 42nd Street  New York, NY.

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