Broadway’s Alex Edelman is a Comic who Works Clay as well as the Room

Elisheva Goldberg
Alex Edelman might be found throwing pottery when he is not busy starring on Broadway.

NEW YORK – We sat facing each other, Alex Edelman and I, talking about life’s remarkable turns. Which was inordinately appropriate, seeing as he was suddenly a Broadway star, and we each had a pottery wheel spinning before us.

“The circle game,” Joni Mitchell once called life. Edelman and I discussed the breathtaking revolutions in his own career as the wheels revolved: the stunning success of his recently opened one-man show “Just for Us,” the pressures and the pleasures of acclaim, the terrible sudden death of the production’s director, his mentor and friend Adam Brace. As we both made bowls.

A few days after his joyous official opening night at the Hudson Theatre in late June, Edelman invited me to join him at BKLYN Clay West, a pottery studio in Tribeca, for a session with his latest passion. Edelman, a 34-year-old Boston-bred comic with a degree from New York University, possesses a restless, what’s-next brand of intelligence, not surprising in a comedian with a show that started half a decade ago in a tiny space in London and now has ascended to a 1,000-seat theater on Broadway.

Throwing pots, I was discovering on my first time at the wheel, requires concentration and the development of an almost oneness of spirit with the clay. Lose your focus, pedal down on the motor too abruptly, glide your fingers up the softening exterior periphery of clay too soon, and your perfect project tumbles like the walls of Jericho.

I could see how it might be just the patient activity to slow one’s pulse after the exhilaration of inhaling the laughter of 1,000 people, a solitary endeavor allowing time for reflection. The Broadway run of “Just for Us” started 58 days after the death of Brace, 43, in London, after a stroke. Unfathomable grief going hand in hand with immeasurable joy.

Perhaps strapping on an apron and shaping something with one’s own hands was the grounding exercise to help one make sense of it all. “Opening night was the most surreal,” Edelman said, as he squeezed a wet sponge onto the clay. “First of all, they stood when I came out, which is ridiculous.”

“Does that energize you?” I asked, as I massaged the mound of clay, under the guidance of Elisheva Goldberg, a young potter from Washington who has become friends with Edelman. “It does energize me,” he said. “Also, Denis Leary was sitting in the second row. And when you look at Denis Leary and he’s laughing, you’re like ‘Okay, Denis Leary likes it, so something’s going on.’ “

The spine of “Just for Us” – a 90-minute monologue that Edelman performs on a bare stage that has the feel of a deluxe comedy club – is the story of the audacious gamble the comic undertook several years ago. As a son of Modern Orthodox Jewish parents, he had a strong religious education and upbringing, some of it recounted affectionately and hilariously in the show.

He also became an avid user of social media and, having come into contact with some virulent antisemites online, he was curious about who these people might be. One of the tweets he read included an invitation to a meeting of white nationalists in an apartment in Queens. So he went, not revealing that he was Jewish.

“Just for Us” is chockablock with funny anecdotes about his family: one of the best stories has to do with his brother A.J. qualifying for Israel in the Winter Olympics sledding sport of skeleton, which Edelman jokingly called “Shul Runnings.” At other times, he lays bare with a chilling clarity the depth of ignorance and resentment in some twisted corners of society. He does offer amusing commentary on the subject, musing sardonically on how hard it has to be, being a racist in a city as ethnically diverse as New York.

Edelman said for him the show is about assimilation, and the tale of his mother’s decision one December to stage a Christmas celebration for a Christian friend locates a truth about being outside the mainstream during the holidays. (He said he wants to write and direct a movie about the episode.) For me, though, “Just for Us” is about an irreconcilable chasm of bigotry. And Edelman is fine with that assessment.

“I did a Q&A the other night with Josh Groban at the 92nd Street Y, and I was like, ‘People take away different things from the show,'” Edelman said. “And I really love that. It’s like a bit of Torah. People take away different things from each verse, biblically. You can derive your own lesson from it. That’s really why I’m not more didactic in the show. Because I want people to be able to have their own conversation.”

Edelman took up pottery about four months ago, during a return engagement of his show in London. He seems to need challenging diversions: The last time I interviewed him, during the run of “Just for Us” last fall at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in the District of Columbia, he was taking rigorous boxing lessons. Goldberg, who is studying in London for an advanced degree in pottery making, met Edelman in Washington at one of the casual after-show gab sessions he holds in theater lobbies. Their friendship continued over clay.

As I struggled to keep up with my own mound of brownish clay, my hands ever more sloppily caked with mud, I watched Edelman work more cleanly and delicately, as he beseeched Goldberg for advice and approval. It made me wonder if there was a pattern to his apprenticeship that began with his intensive Torah studies at a Jewish day school in the Boston area and continued into adulthood, with comic tutelage under Brace. He also makes it a habit to ask for “one note” about improving his performance from the pros, the actors and comedians who come to see him.

At the time of his death, Brace was gaining traction as an ingenious guide for emerging comedy stars. Another London production he directed, “One Woman Show” with wildly funny and inventive Liz Kingsman, is now enjoying a well-received New York run, at off-Broadway’s Greenwich House Theater. Edelman noted that it was Brace who, on a tour of possible Broadway houses for “Just for Us,” picked the Hudson.

Edelman had not been sure about doing Broadway. He thought maybe, with the show’s success off-Broadway and in other cities, he should not tempt fate. Brace disagreed. “Adam would say, ‘No risk it, no biscuit,'” a line appropriated with a wink from a sports guy Brace liked, Bruce Arians, former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So, risk it he did, ever mindful of the debt he owes to his own fallen coach.

Brace’s comedy wisdom was still guiding him. Having seen “Just for Us” on several occasions in New York and Washington, I’ve noticed a stage tic of Edelman’s, to laugh softly at moments, as if after hundreds of performances he still found them funny. “Adam’s rule,” he explained, was that if he was making an observation about someone else, he could react, but not if it was about himself. “Some things I pretend are funny to me,” Edelman said. “But like the thing about A.J. doing the Olympics is always funny. For some reason it always makes me laugh, always.”

On his official opening night on Broadway, Edelman’s family was in the house, as were some of Brace’s relatives from the United Kingdom. Recalling the evening stirred other memories of Brace. Edelman got up from the pottery wheel and pulled out his phone. On it was a photo of an inscription Brace wrote last year, in a book he had given to Edelman. “Show’s in good shape. So is your life,” Brace wrote. “It’s important to recognize that when it happens.”

Our pottery session at an end, Edelman looked at my first finished bowl ever. “That is amazing!” he said, one of those things you say when you don’t know what to say. “Stop!” I demurred. Though surprisingly, it did look like a bowl. And then, with a Lincoln Town Car and driver waiting for him outside the studio on West Street, Edelman, specks of dried clay clinging to his palms, was on the road and headed back to Broadway, to spin his own funny wheels once again.

Elisheva Goldberg
Alex Edelman started pottery a few months ago on an engagement of his show in London.