‘Bad Jews’ theater review: There’s a reason they don’t call it ‘Good People’

by Chris Hewitt
Pioneer Press
Thursday May 5, 2016

It’s an over-used phrase, but in the case of the play “Bad Jews” it fits: The central character, Daphna, is a force of nature.

A woman who needs less than 60 seconds to go from asking someone about her family to accusing her of participating in genocide, Daphna has a chip on her shoulder the size of Mount Sinai and she makes sure everyone knows it. A rabbi wanna-be, she has just attended her grandfather’s funeral and finds herself bunking in a studio apartment with her passive cousin, Jonah, her loudmouth cousin Liam, who considers himself a “bad Jew,” and Liam’s fiancee, a shiksa named Melody who has no idea what sort of minefield she has wandered into.

The play, set during a single evening, revolves around the question of who will inherit a family relic, a Chai necklace the dead man kept in his possession throughout two years in Auschwitz and has worn ever since. Daphna, who considers the Chai (the word means “life”) a symbol of the survival of the Jewish faith, thinks it should be hers. Liam, who views it as a romantic heirloom, thinks it should be his and wants to use it to propose to Melody.

Joshua Harmon’s play is explosively, profanely funny and it raises intriguing questions about what it means to be Jewish now. What do these characters, all in their late 20s, owe their faith and their families? Absent a Holocaust to live through, how can they prove they deserve the heritage they were given at birth? By focusing exclusively on this generation, Harmon makes “Bad Jews” specific enough to be universal. For instance, we have to imagine what the characters’ parents think about this whole conflict, or if they even care about it, and who hasn’t found themselves puzzled by the actions and desires of the generation that preceded them?

Harmon builds the play around three toxic rants — two for Daphna, one for Liam — that are destined to show up in high school speech events for years to come. The rants are wildly entertaining, particularly Daphna’s, because Miriam Schwartz’s performance is so confident that she seems incapable of hitting a false note. Schwartz has it in her to create a more likable, more middle-of-the-road Daphna but she resists that temptation; instead, she reveals a woman who projects her hideous bile onto the world because if she kept it inside it might kill her. In fact, it’s a credit to the ensemble, and to director Hayley Finn, that it’s clear why all of these characters believe what they believe.

Still, the play doesn’t quite fit on Minnesota Jewish Theater’s stage (two scenes staged outside the apartment take place in an awkward no-man’s land) and it sometimes feels too programmatic. Although Michael Torsch makes Jonah’s slacker sensitivity fascinating, it’s obvious, for instance, that this man who spends most of the play observing has a surprise in store for us. Similarly, while Daphna and Liam are great roles, they’re not necessarily great characters — as written, they’re virtually inhuman. I get that funerals bring out the worst in some people but Daphna is too smart to unleash torrents of abuse on Liam, the very person she needs to win over to her side in the Chai conflict. Also, are these the only choices we get in the debate about what constitutes a good Jew: a shrill, but observant, harridan and an entitled creep who was born with a silver chai in his mouth?

Or maybe that’s the whole point of the play and the reason theatergoers of any persuasion can find it compelling: Good Jew, bad Jew. What difference does it make if you’re a horrible person?

Capsule: You won’t want to be pals with the characters but they make for a corrosively funny 90 minutes.