Credit Jake Ehrenreich with this much: He knows who he wants to reach. His one-man musical “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” exists to entertain a Jewish baby boomer crowd that grew up in Gotham and got hauled to the Catskills for summer vacations. And for those who don’t remember their first trip upstate or playing stickball in Ditmas Park? Well, good luck singing along to the Yiddish version of “Meet the Mets.”
Perhaps too frequently, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” plays like a poor man’s version of Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays,” aping everything from the slide projections of family photographs to the homey brick-wall set (although Joseph Egan has crafted a New York apartment building instead of “700’s” suburban Long Island home). Even the show’s structure feels borrowed, as Ehrenreich moves predictably between mild ribbing of his family and heritage to earnest reflections on the lessons learned from each.
But despite the familiar elements, “Brooklyn” is too scattered to become more than trifling entertainment. As a writer, Ehrenreich glosses over dozens of subjects without shaping them into a satisfying story, giving us only passing glances of his Holocaust-survivor parents, the birth of his son and the deaths of his sisters. More time is spent telling cheap vaudeville jokes or crooning hits from the ’60s.
It’s possible that Ehrenreich and director Jon Huberth want this mishmash cabaret to pay homage to the Catskills acts that the show so fondly recalls. That would explain a lengthy bit in which the performer pushes aside the onstage band and plays every instrument himself, trying to capture the cheesy glory of a nightclub showman.
No doubt his target aud will chuckle knowingly at such bravura, as well as the throwaway jokes about Yiddish radio and bar mitzvahs. It’s incredibly easy, after all, to make people smile by telling them what they’ve heard before.
By trotting out nostalgic references and reducing his own family to broad archetypes, Ehrenreich counts on the assumption that people will love having their own experiences gently reaffirmed.
If he were a better performer, Ehrenreich might be able to push through the superficiality of his material. His stage persona, however, only bolsters the feeling that he’s terrified of giving offense. Every segment comes with an implicit apology, like the conciliatory “just kidding” Ehrenreich tacks on to the end of every sarcastic joke. He also opts for passive postures, often throwing up his hands as if to deflect any displeasure with his work.
All of which suggests the performer isn’t confident in his story. It seems he’d rather just hustle for our approval, keeping his personal opinions and perspectives as diluted as possible. But that general wash only makes it hard to pay attention, and nothing of the melange of songs and anecdotes lingers in the brain. We can forget this weightless show even as it’s being performed.