About the Author:
After earning a degree from New York University’s graduate acting program in 2011, Bill Army began his professional career with a classical turn in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure at Shakespeare in the Park, before launching into his Broadway debut in Relatively Speaking. In the evening of one-act plays, Army played a cuckolded groom (and Jewish mama’s boy) in Woody Allen’s Honeymoon Hotel. Now he's putting that experience to very good use in the off-Broadway role comedy revue Old Jews Telling Jokes at the Westside Theatre. How did a young, Catholic-raised actor end up channeling Woody and various Borscht Belt jokesters? Below, Army tells all.
When my agent first called me to audition for Old Jews Telling Jokes, my initial emotional response was anxiety. Any time an audition comes along there is a hint of anxiety surrounding preparation, but this was more than a little stress about memorizing some lines. You see, in my mind there were three words in the title alone that excluded me from necessary qualifications and castability. Firstly, "Old." Second, "Jews." And lastly, "Jokes." I am not old, not Jewish (raised Catholic), and generally think of myself as a comic actor, but hardly a comedian. With a title like Old Jews Telling Jokes, the pressure to make the audience laugh is utterly unavoidable and terrifying. Yet, despite these reservations, the prospect of working on this show was irresistible, and I began to prepare for the audition accordingly.
Day of the audition, I showered, shaved, put on my freshly ironed shirt, and set off for Pearl Studios. Sitting and waiting outside an audition room is ghastly and nerve-wracking, but I tried to focus and calm my pounding heart. Suddenly, I noticed a drop of bright red blood land on the white pages of my script. I gently put my fingers to my chin to discover that I had accidentally re-opened a cut from shaving and was bleeding profusely. Right on cue, Tara Rubin opened the door with a warm smile and said, "Bill, we're ready for you." With startling bluntness I blurted, "I'm bleeding currently." Tara graciously allowed me to race to the bathroom where I dabbed, blotted, and cleaned, only to discover that I was still bleeding. I finally resolved the situation (temporarily) by placing three Band-Aids across the laceration.
With manic confidence, I strolled into the audition room and announced my spontaneous hemorrhage. The looks of concern quickly changed to relieved amusement as I stumbled through, "Liebowitz, his sheep and dog on a desert island," all the while pressing harder and harder to secure the Band-Aids. I treated the very tense situation with the only medicine I could think of: humor. It worked.
The first read with the company was a "laugh fest." Though I hadn't heard (most of) the jokes before and am not Jewish, I felt welcomed and accepted as a member of the tribe from the first few moments. In Relatively Speaking, I had the extraordinary opportunity to work with and learn from comedic masters such as Julie Kavner, Marlo Thomas and, of course, Woody Allen. The musicality of Mr. Allen's writing, his lightning wit and extraordinary self-deprecation helped me to feel more at home with the Old Jews material. In fact, those first few rehearsals felt like visiting relatives you hadn't seen in a long time.
Fortunately, show creators Dan Okrent and Peter Gethers waited patiently as my Yiddish accent slowly sounded less and less Russian. Audrey Lynn Weston became my Yiddish glossary. Lenny Wolpe educated me in "The Barry Sisters." Todd Susman gently corrected my pronunciation of "Sh'ma." Marilyn Sokol was always there to keep me from taking it all too seriously. At the first music rehearsal, I showed up with my pencil and music ready to work, sang through my opening lines to discover everyone staring at me. After a short pause, Marilyn said, "Oh my, he took private!" And of course, Marc Bruni, our fearless director and only other gentile in the mix, was always there to support, edit, fix and change.
One day, shortly before opening, I went to Marc to express my anxiety about being the only gentile in a Jewish show. Marc said, "It's a show about humor. Yes, the material is Jewish, but if you like to laugh, then it's your material too." He's right. And as I got ready to do the show that night, I remembered the first time I saw Young Frankenstein. I remembered lying in bed listening to my mom laugh out loud at Seinfeld every Thursday night. I remembered watching Radio Days with my dad. I remembered that these old jokes were the basis of everything I find funny to this day. As Morty says in the show, "These jokes make me feel as if I've come home." I guess it is true—a kind of surprising bashert (look it up). And even though I'm not Jewish, my first crush was Jewish, my first kiss was Jewish, my favorite grade school teacher was Jewish, and I married a doctor. What could be more Jewish than that?