Judy Gold is a very funny woman who's won awards both as a standup comic and as a writer and producer for Rosie O'Donnell and others. She's also a practicing Conservative Jew and a lesbian mother of two. So you can see she's eminently qualified to create a solo show called "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother," which the Huntington Theatre Company is presenting at the Boston Center for the Arts through New Year's Eve.
The show has many hilarious moments and just as many poignant ones. Unfortunately, though, for all the questions that come up over the course of its 75 minutes, there's one that Gold and her coauthor, playwright Kate Moira Ryan, should have hashed out more thoroughly as they were putting the piece together: What's the difference between a standup routine and a play?
Ryan and Gold wrote "25 Questions" after spending more than five years interviewing Jewish mothers around the country, and Gold does some wonderfully precise, affectionate imitations of the very different women who shared their stories. These include a Chinese social worker who converted to Orthodox Judaism in part to please her husband, another Orthodox woman who lost a son to AIDS, a writer and professor who as a child helped her mother survive Auschwitz, and Gold's own mother, Ruth - "Rivka, if you're in the tribe." She shifts effortlessly into their mannerisms and voices, summoning up a whole life in a throaty smoker's contralto or a dentist's careful smile.
But these vignettes, for which Gold sits in an easy chair onstage, are interspersed with segments that feel more like excerpts - or outtakes - from her standup act. Spotlighted at a standing microphone, she tells hysterical, if hyperbolic, tales of her childhood, then moves into the even more complicated waters of her adult life: her mother's discomfort with her sexuality, her partner's eagerness to have children, her own hesitation and then her eventual embrace of motherhood.
At some point, Gold notes that the process of interviewing all these Jewish mothers changed her life, enriching and deepening her understanding of her own motherhood - and of her mother's, for that matter. That's clearly true. What's less clear is what she wants us to take away from the experience of hearing about her experience.
We remain a little in the dark because "25 Questions" hasn't been shaped clearly enough into a coherent form - whether a conversational one that would feel closer to comedy, or a more theatrical one that would fall into the category of dramatic monologue. There's great stuff here, both in the jokes and in the more serious moments. But Gold doesn't always seem sure of how to tell all the stories she wants to tell.
That difficulty becomes especially clear near the end, when Gold's own life story takes a drastic turn. She breaks the news in a viciously funny comic bit, and I won't spoil the surprise, but the problem is that it's a bit too much of a surprise - or, more precisely, that we're never sure how we're supposed to integrate this new information into the narrative that has preceded it.
Of course it's possible to weave together personal pain, humor, and collective wisdom into a larger story. But if it's to become that kind of fully satisfying work, "25 Questions" needs a stronger guiding hand.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.