Comedy — the New York variety, anyway — isn’t for the faint of heart. It can, like a lot else in this brassy city, get up in your face.
Which brings us to the new season of “In Your Face – New York”; it opens at Merkin Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 24, with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik and the pop-rock band BETTY hosting a gang of New York actors, singers, writers and comics on stage, celebrating this city and thinking out loud about this cultural and political moment.
The show begins with sisters Elizabeth and Amy Ziff and Alyson Palmer of BETTY singing the theme song: “It’s a charity black tie gala/ It’s a fresh baked Sabbath challah/ It’s the new tattoo you had to ink today…” with the refrain, “It’s New York and it’s in your face.”
“It’s a head-on collision between ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and The New York Review of Books,” the show’s creator and co-producer, Martin Sage, tells The Jewish Week.
The October show also includes Broadway actor and singer Melissa Errico, novelist and psychiatrist Josh Bazell and a sketch by “Sex and the City” writers Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky.
Sage says that he’s been writing comedy all of his adult life, and maybe part of his childhood. He and his wife, television comedy writer Sybil Sage, have written together for “Northern Exposure” and other shows.
For 10 years, Sage partnered with his friend Isaiah Sheffer, longtime artistic director of Symphony Space, to produce “The Thalia Follies: A Political Cabaret” at Symphony Space. When Sheffer died in 2012, Sage didn’t want to continue without him. This new show grew out of the “Follies,” but now Sage has expanded onto a larger stage, with bassist and singer Jay Leonhart leading the 1-Train Band and a great mix of New York voices and talent.
An evening that mixes comic sketches, songs and surprises, “In Your Face – New York” is scripted and rehearsed, with original material. It’s not improv or stand-up, but some of the connections seem born of New York spontaneity: Sage was introduced to BETTY by his wife, who met the sisters at a feminist seder.
He notes that since “In Your Face – New York” explores the enormous creativity in New York, many of the performers and writers are Jewish.
“Because that’s New York,” he says.
This is the show’s fourth season. Past shows have included writer Patricia Volk, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, cartoonist Roz Chast, flutist Eugenia Zuckerman and novelist Nicole Krauss. Sage also mentions Kelly Hall-Tompkins who, while not Jewish, was the main violinist for the last Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and will appear in the December show.
“So, in a sense, rather than karma, the show has instant yichus,” he writes in an email, using the Yiddish word for the right lineage.
Sage, who grew up in Coney Island and on the Upper West Side, has rabbinical yichus. His grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Shochetman, who had been the chief rabbi of Paris, established a shteibel on West End Avenue and 92nd Street, and although he died when Sage was a young boy, the shul is still known known as Shochetman’s. Sage’s father Maurice, a rabbi and chemist, was a prominent leader of several Jewish organizations.
Asked about the roots of his humor, he says, “I don’t come from a funny family. I really don’t know. I’m happy it happened.”
In December, food writer Ruth Reichl hosts, and journalist Ari Melber of MSNBC takes the stage on March 13. (A host for the season finale, May 16, has not been named.) All of the episodes are online at inyourfaceny.org.