Diagnosis: Jew Pain mines quirky family, bisexuality

"My son the bisexual."

Not exactly the words a kvelling Jewish mother expects to hear herself say, but in Michael Feldman's case (or, rather, his mom's), that's the way it is.

Feldman, a 21-year-old playwright-actor, turned his kosher Brooklyn upbringing and eventual coming-out into performance art. He brings that one-man show "Diagnosis: Jew Pain" to the 2003 San Francisco Fringe Festival from tonight through Sunday, Sept. 14.

Says Feldman, "It's about growing up in a quirky New York Jewish family. The first half was written before I came out; the second half, after."

That internal duality plays out in the hourlong show, with Feldman portraying both himself and a host of characters based on family members, friends and acquaintances.

Because the creation of "Diagnosis: Jew Pain" coincided with Feldman's own coming out process, there was an inevitable blurring of the lines between real life and the theatricalized version.

At the time, Feldman attended New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, enrolled in its Playwrights Horizon theater program. In one elective class, Feldman was required to create an original work. He decided to turn his personal tsuris into a play.

Born into an observant family, Feldman was raised to honor his Jewish tradition. "We kept kosher," he recalls, "which often meant Chinese food on paper plates. But the one rule we came back to over and over was to marry Jewish. I had to marry a Jewish woman, and give my parents Jewish grandchildren."

Seemed like a good idea at the time, but for one teeny-tiny problem: Even if he did marry Jewish, Feldman wasn't sure he would choose a man or a woman.

"All my life I felt like a typo, a mistake that should be whited out," he admits, referring to his struggle to accept his bisexuality. "The climax came when I had lockjaw and had to get a muscle relaxer." Apparently the pharmacy mislabeled the medication: "Take 2 tablets for Jew Pain."

And thus a show was born.

Over a two-year period, Feldman workshopped his play, which also includes three original songs. For much of that time, he remained firmly, if surprisingly, in the closet.

As the show evolved, Feldman gained recognition, performing it at NYU and later at the New York Fringe Festival (home stage for the acclaimed "Urinetown"). But over time, he knew he could no longer avoid the 800-pound gorilla: coming out to his parents, which he did in two stages, dad first, then mom.

"My dad took it very well," recalls Feldman. "He said, 'I would never disown you and I'm 98 percent sure your mother wouldn't either.' I hid it from mom until last May. It was in a Brooklyn diner, and everyone in the restaurant probably thought I was breaking up with my mom. She said it would take time."

Feldman reports that his parents have since accepted their son for who he is, and are enjoying his newfound success as a writer-performer. And they aren't the only ones.

"A lot of gays, lesbians and Jewish mothers were in tears afterwards," says Feldman, "and told me the show gave them hope. Many of my family members told me they loved it and are proud of me. My own cousin came out after he saw the show!"

With Showbusiness Weekly voting "Diagnosis: Jew Pain" one of the Top 25 shows to see at the New York Fringe Festival, Feldman knew he had to take his act on the road. He has since toured on the college circuit, and he has played for both Jewish and gay-lesbian audiences.

The San Francisco Fringe Festival, though smaller than its New York counterpart, seemed like the next logical step.

Feldman is proud of the impact his show has had so far, particularly on the gay-lesbian-bisexual community. "The message," he says, "is to come to terms with yourself, believe in who you are, and not suppress that for anyone."

And as for that small matter of marrying a nice Jewish girl someday, Feldman remains somewhat cagey.

"I still date women," he says. "I told my parents they don't have to rule it out."

"Diagnosis: Jew Pain (Slideshow of a Life in Progress)" will be performed at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, Exit Theater, 156 Eddy St., 8:30 p.m. today; 2:30 p.m. Sunday; 10 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thursday; 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13 and 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14. Tickets, $8. Information:

(415) 931-1024.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.