It’s a rare performer that can generate so much affection from an audience by regarding them with unrestrained contempt, but Jackie Hoffman has cultivated a unique niche for herself in New York’s lengthy history of comic actors who partner with their Jewish heritage acting as straight man.
Since making her Broadway debut in Hairspray in a role that allowed her one ad-libbed line per performance, Hoffman’s fans have delighted in seeing her acidic personality seep through the parts she plays. Her broad-stroked musical comedy performances are delivered with the kind of stage moxie associated with old-school Jewish female stars like Fanny Brice, but when she takes her act to the nightclub stages, that energy is served steeped in the post-Portnoy neurosis that became prevalent once Woody Allen became the Upper West Side’s poster boy for Hebrew humor. As she puts it in A Chanukah Charol, which returns to New World Stages for a limited holiday run, “I’m the self-hating Jew that other self-hating Jews hate.”
Scowling at the patrons with a look that says she’d much rather be taking a prescription drug-induced nap than entertaining them, Hoffman begins with a stern and rumbling impersonation of Patrick Stewart, who, to those who don't give a damn about science fiction or Shakespeare, is best known for his one-man Broadway performances of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
If you were in a sentimental holiday mood, you might call A Chanukah Charol (which was directed and co-authored by Michael Schiarilli) a self-exploration where the comic learns to shed the cantankerous image that has made her solo appearances so outrageously funny. But no, she remains kvetchier than ever, spending a generous analyst's hour hilariously recounting the smashed dreams of stardom that have plagued her life.
As narrated by Stewart, the tale is far more Broadway than Dickens; the set-up having Jackie Hoffman spending another Chanukah away from the family, preferring to be in the spotlight at a "synagig" at Temple Beth Shalom in Queens. But an inattentive audience frustrates her into walking off the stage and into her dressing room (the rabbi's office) where she laments the notion that her ethnic looks are holding her back. ("I've done three big Broadway musicals, accumulating twelve total minutes of stage time!") When she pities herself for merely being "a Jewish star," the ghost of Molly Picon appears from the label of a Manischewitz bottle, warning her to expect visits from three spirits who will show her the error of her self-loathing.
Though Shelley Winters makes an appearance as a potty-mouthed ghost of Chanukah present, the characters Hoffman dives into either come from her past (her traditional Jewish mother who takes pleasure in overfeeding her family) or from her and Schiarilli's particularly nasty imagination; a disabled Pinkberry delivery boy named Tiny Kim and a young Chasidic lad she instructs to buy her a giant bottle of generic Ambien displayed in a drug store window. ("The one that's as big as me?")
Though she laments, “I have Martha Raye mojo in a world where NeNe Leakes is on two series!,” we do get a peek at Hoffman's future success as the star of an exceedingly inappropriate reality television show; a moment that, if you care to read something deeper into it, provides an interesting commentary on how the innocence of ethnic humor from a hundred years ago has drastically evolved.
Photo of Jackie Hoffman by Carol Rosegg.
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