First Nighter: Monica Piper's Very Funny and Very Real "Not That Jewish"

Since New York City is still assumed to have a large theatergoing Jewish audience, entertainments aimed their way are frequent. For that reason, over the years Jewish humor--a trait of which members of the population are proud--can, and often has, become cliché. Who needs to hear another Jewish mother joke?

So when a one-woman show called Not That Jewish is announced, potential ticket buyers might be excused for thinking something along the lines of "Oh, no, not again."

They'd be thinking incorrectly. Monica Piper, who's been trekking the stand-up circuit for a few decades--along with heavy-mittage laugh-getters like Elayne Boosler--has a good excuse for her title and immediately explains it as she starts her spiel.

When she was a child, the mother of a friend asked about family religious observances. She replied that there weren't many high holidays or rituals honored at her house. The mother reacted to the response by telling the young girl that in the circumstances she was "not that Jewish."

The foregoing, then, is decidedly not a Jewish mother joke. It's something else entirely. It's a statement that a confused child took to heart and has parsed ever since. The parsing, decorated with genuinely amusing comic hunks throughout, is really what Piper's 90 minutes is about.

Roaming Stephan Carnahan's accommodating set, Piper--who confesses how she changed her given name to Monica Piper--unspools her autobiography. Not surprisingly, since so many comics do what they do as compensation for lives that are demonstrably not laff-a-minute affairs, she's had her very highs, and she's also had her very low lows.

Yes, she recalls her climb up the comedy ladder. There's the journey to Los Angeles by way of Chicago's Second City and the subsequent break into the right comedy clubs. It's a development that happened with setbacks but not as many as others might report. She mentions writing for Roseanne Barr and Roseanne, a gig that led to Mad About You and Veronica's Closet sitcom writers-room perches and then to Rugrats and many comedy-writing awards.

But, really, she wants to speak openly about a private life that ran to man troubles and raising son Jake as a single mother. She doted on the lad when he was a toddler but encountered problems in the teen years that parents, Jewish or not, will instantly recognize. She raised Jake as a Jew, but that wasn't quite correct, and she gets around to that, too.

The result, directed by Mark Waldrop with his usual aplomb, is that Piper is compulsively honest about the joys and woes of her path to the New World Stages stage (after 16 months of an L. A. stint), but at a deeper level that she doesn't overplay, she's also writing about what and who qualifies as practicing the Jewish faith--or, it should be needless to point out, any faith.

After all this time, she has a potent response to the Bronx neighborhood mother who so blithely and with such a narrow mind chided a youngster. Piper may not be that Jewish--whatever such a phrase means--but with this outpouring she's that good.