When she was a little girl in the Bronx, Monica Piper asked her mother, “Do I have a Jewish heart?” “Of course, dear,” her mother answered. “We’re Democrats.”
That’s one of the funny and sweet anecdotes that Piper shares in her one-woman comic reminiscence, “Not That Jewish,” now at New World Stages. Using a photo display at the back of the stage to introduce various family members, Piper recounts the story of her life and career and her adoption of her son within the frame of that question she asked her mother when she was a child.
A stand-up comic, comedy writer, and motivational speaker since the 1980s, Piper credits her show-biz father for her natural wit. His religion was humor, she recalls with genuine fondness, and he could always make her mother laugh, no matter how many times she’d heard the same story. One of the most likable parts of this show is Piper’s obvious love for her parents, and her appreciation of them as people. It’s an affecting change-up from the typical neurotic Jewish parents. There are other people on the wall too — a rich aunt and uncle, a beloved grandmother, her teenage son — and all of them are treated as individuals rather than stereotypes.
Trading the Bronx for California, Piper spent several years as an English teacher before she decided to try her hand at comedy. She studied improv with Second City in Chicago and attempted a solo act at the Comedy Store. After performing stand-up for a while and landing a comedy special on Showtime, Piper began writing for well-known TV sitcoms, including “Roseanne,” “Mad About You,” and “Veronica’s Closet.” Eventually, she became the showrunner for “Rugrats,” for which she won an Emmy.
While she was building a show business career, Piper also was trying to have a personal life. Her romantic travails make up part of the show, and they are as poignant as they are amusing. Her first marriage broke up when her husband didn’t understand he had to laugh at her stories, just as her mother had, no matter how many times he heard them. Another relationship ended because the guy loved cocaine more than he loved her. Finally, Piper decided that if she couldn’t be a wife, she could still be a mother, and she adopted a baby boy and became a “stay-at-hotel mom.” Once her son had to go to school, Piper had to leave the road and settle down. That’s when she began to work with animated series for Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney .
Although she’s not a household name, Piper has an engaging manner and a natural warmth, which makes her easy to spend time with. The 90-minute show was a success in the L.A. area, where Piper lives now and where she is an artist-in-residence with the Jewish Women’s Theatre. In was in that venue that she developed this show, which was nominated for best solo performance by the L.A. Drama Critics Circle.
It’s not all laughs. Piper was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her mother spent years with Alzheimer’s. One of the most touching stories concerns her father’s inability to attend her son’s bar mitzvah because of his own health issues. As he becomes a teenager, Piper’s son wants to develop a relationship with his birth mother, something that must concern any adoptive parent. Though it all, Piper maintains her sense of humor.
Funny and sad, “Not That Jewish” contains a lifetime of experiences, entertainingly shared with the audience.