I am not Jewish, and I am not a mother. Fortunately, neither condition is a prerequisite for attending—or enjoying—25 Questions for a Jewish Mother, Judy Gold's entertaining one-woman show at Ars Nova. What first drew me to this production was not Gold's reputation, which I recognized, but the reputation of the credited writer, Kate Moira Ryan. I'd never seen one of her plays, but I had seen her name mentioned again and again in relation to downtown theater, and I wanted to become familiar with her work.
After watching this show, I still don't believe I've seen a Kate Moira Ryan play. That is, this production didn't look like a play. Instead, I felt as though I were in a small cabaret, set up with only a chair and a microphone, watching Gold perform her life's story, along with the stories of the Jewish mothers interviewed for this project.
The influence of Ryan, director Karen Kohlhaas, and the show's designers was undetectable throughout the hour-plus production. Gold's performance seemed well practiced, but never scripted or staged. The others clearly supported her, and the result appears effortless and polished.
Part standup routine, part autobiography, and part investigative performance, 25 Questions has Gold introducing us to the larger-than-life character of her mother and wondering why exactly she is the way she is, leading her to ask whether she's likely to turn out the same way. In order to better understand her own mother, Gold and Ryan pose 25 questions to Jewish women—all mothers—from a variety of backgrounds.
For the performance, the stage is divided into thirds. All interview questions are asked and answered stage left. Stage right is reserved for excerpts of standup comedy routines, while the narrative is told from center stage. We hear the question asked, followed by a recorded voice indicating to us the number of children, occupation, and level of religious observance (Orthodox, Reform, etc.) of the mother we are about to meet. Taking a seat, Gold then re-enacts that mother answering her question.
The questions ranged from the expected (what typifies a Jewish mother?) to the universal (what is your biggest regret?) to the very specific (how do you feel about the way women are treated in your religion?). Each question illustrates Gold's story, a tale that begins with childhood and charts her adolescence, her early career, her identity as a gay woman, and, finally, her introduction to motherhood. The questions worked well as transitions and advanced the narrative without losing touch with its premise.
Gold is probably best known to audiences as a comic, and her ease in front of a crowd is instantly apparent. Her deadpan delivery is perfect for the wry tone of the material she performs. She morphs well into each interviewee; she was able to inhabit them physically instead of relying too much on the standard comedy technique of impersonation. There was not a particularly wide range of characterization, since all the interview subjects were female, and I would have preferred knowing the age of each woman Gold portrayed, as these details were only occasionally referenced in their answers. When they were not obvious, I had some trouble differentiating between a 45-year-old and someone older.
I also struggled to differentiate new mothers, mothers of young children, and mothers of grown children. While these details weren't needed to understand the responses, I often got distracted trying to figure out which category each mother belonged in.
Just past the halfway point, the show seemed to lose its quick pace when Gold's story shifted to 9/11 and her run-in with the U.S. Homeland Security Department. However, the connection to her mother remained constant, and when, at the end, Gold herself answers one of the interview questions, we realize that she too is a Jewish mother. This is never a fact that she hides; she makes a point of mentioning it at the beginning of the show. But until the audience sees her sitting in the interview chair—no longer affecting another's posture or voice—she still seems slightly distanced from this world.
Many of the questions in this project could be asked of any woman, because they deal with basic gender-identity issues and the relationship of motherhood to modern society. Gold's goal is to explore these areas in her own life. She poses serious questions and receives serious answers, but balances them beautifully with humor and a winking self-deprecation. One interviewee, when asked for the best advice she had received from her mother, declared it was optimism. Through Gold's energetic performance, this optimistic spirit pervades the show, and I left feeling happy, hopeful, and with an overwhelming urge to call my mother.