On a recent evening at the Westside Theatre, Lehman Professor Marilyn Sokol left her dressing room in a rush to greet her fans, friends, and a surprising guest, Barbara Walters. They all seemed to agree that Sokol provides the medicine to all ailments: laughter.
Eight times a week, Sokol performs a captivating range of characters in the new off-Broadway show, Old Jews Telling Jokes. The show alternates between jokes, comic songs, and monologues in which each character reveals a little bit of his or her own story — derived from the lives of the creators — and gives a human voice to the tales.
Old Jews Telling Jokes showcases five actors, Bill Army, Marilyn Sokol, Todd Susman, Audrey Lynn Weston, and Lenny Wolpe, whose complicity onstage adds to the comedic effect as they can’t help laughing with the public.
“The people have heard enough about it that they come expecting to have a good time, and they do,” Sokol says. “And those who don’t, I think we win them over. I think the reason why the show is so well received is that there is a need for laughter. Every time I turn on the news, whether it’s local, national, or international, human interest or economics, there has been very little to lighten our life.”
Marilyn Sokol became involved with the show after falling in love with the title.
Old Jews Telling Jokes, created by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent, takes its name and inspiration from a popular web series. With the help of a couch, a television, a pianist, and a ukulele, the energetic cast of comic actors brings laughter to the audience at every joke.
Sokol wears many hats, including a Jewish mother looking to marry her introverted daughter. When a young man, played by Bill Army, tells her that he spent twenty years in jail for killing his wife, she lights up, brings her daughter forward, and asks him, “So you’re single?”
Sokol’s gestures, body language, and heart-felt wit keep the audience laughing well after the punch line. Her refreshing joy is contagious whether she plays a drunk, a sheep, or a witty Jewish wife.
Next fall, Sokol plans to teach an acting class at Lehman in addition to a special course on promoting yourself and the realities of the entertainment business.
“I tell my students you have to be extra committed with comedy. I approach it from an acting point of view,” she says. “Teaching for me has really made me a better actor. The students value having a teacher who works in the business. It’s a tightrope because you have to do each with dedication.”
Sokol says her secret to playing eight shows a week while grading student papers lies in relaxation, going over her lines, and adjusting her time to save most of her energy for the performance of the day.
With stellar reviews and instant popularity, Old Jews Telling Jokes may become the perfect candidate for the longest open-ended off-Broadway run.
“I think that the show is loving, and there is no self-hate,” she says “That positive loving feeling is quite refreshing and rare.”