Bad Jews

by Arthur Dorman
Talkin' Broadway
Saturday, May 7, 2016

Bad Jews is a comedy, but one that packs a wallop. There are so many genuine laugh lines, so much humor in the characters that it might be possible to overlook just how terrible these people are to one another—but probably not. Bad Jews is too smart and too well written by Joshua Harmon to let go of the title premise. The play is receiving its Minnesota premiere in a production by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company that gets everything right.

Bad Jews takes place more or less now, in a studio apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. Though quarters are close, the apartment building is pretty tony—the bathroom has a view of the Hudson River. The studio is owned by twenty-something brothers Liam and Jonah's parents, whose far more lavish home is down the hall, as a pad for their boys or other guests to stay when visiting. As the play opens, Jonah and his cousin Daphna are there, summoned to New York for the funeral of their beloved grandfather, whom they call Poppy. Daphna and Jonah await Liam who has already missed the funeral. He had been on a ski trip during which he lost his cell phone, therefore missing the call from his parents. When he does arrive, Liam is in the company of his girlfriend Melody, causing further strain on the studio's sleeping arrangements. And on Daphna's sensibility as a pious Jew.

Daphna, a self-proclaimed deeply observant Jew, disdains Liam's claims of atheism and secular lifestyle. She has little tolerance for Liam's serial dating of gentile girls, although it is fair to say she has little tolerance for anything about Liam. Liam is equally judgmental toward Daphna, belittling her religiosity and calling her plans to move to Israel, study to become a rabbi, and marry a man she met on a trip to the holy land last year a total fabrication. This account of their differences does not begin to depict the cruelty with which they verbally lunge at one another. Poor Jonah is caught in the middle, trying against all odds to broker peace, or at least a cessation of hostility, between his brother and his cousin. Melody, who enters as an innocent, is quickly drawn into the crossfire, becoming as shocked by a vindictive side of Liam she had never before seen as by Daphna's cruelty.

Bad Jews plays out in real time, running about ninety minutes, as Daphna and Liam come to blows over who holds the stronger claim to the most prized object left behind by Poppy—his chai. The Hebrew word and symbol chai signifies life. The letter is often cast as a piece of jewelry worn on a chain around one's neck, primarily by men. Poppy's chai has special meaning to the family, as it was the one prized possession he managed to hold onto while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. As the only grandchild who maintains Jewish practice, Daphna feels the chai should be hers, while Liam wants the chai for his own purpose—a noble one, it turns out, but in the interest of providing a spoiler-free review, I will leave it at that.

Of course, people don't have to be Jews to be this selfish and unkind to one another, but the Jewish context of the play does add a dimension to it. There are within many Jewish families schisms and feuds over whose life is more virtuous, whose life brings credit to the Jewish people, and which among them are "bad Jews." The word bad, in this usage, usually infers non-practicing, similar to the phrase "lapsed Catholic," but within Harmon's battleground of wits it also refers to bad as simply the opposite of good. In that sense, being a "bad Jew" is the same as being any "bad person", only with specific cultural baggage. Harmon craftily plays it both ways, raising the key question of which matters more—to maintain the practice of one's faith, or the goodness that faith is thought to promulgate?

Haley Finn directs Bad Jews with a notion of how the spark of an argument can become an out of control blaze, the venom increasingly heated, and yet never ceasing to convey reality. She draws these combatting cousins into an extreme sport of dueling wills. At the same time, she brings out all of the non-stop humor imbedded in their characters and their circumstances. Truth be told, as nasty as Daphna can be, she also has a great flair for droll wit. Finn works with numerous terrific affects and stage business—the benign handling of a bowl of jelly beans in the midst of heated argument; or the man-bun, the latest artifact of liberated masculinity sported by Liam, but never once mentioned.

The quartet of young actors shine. Miriam Schwartz gives an amazing performance as Daphna: funny, whip-smart, and unafraid to be as nasty as she needs to be in the name of telling what she believes to be the truth. When things fall apart, Schwartz reveals a well of hurt deep beneath Daphna's crust of superiority. Michael Hanna's Liam is every bit a match for Daphna. If somewhat self-satisfied, he seems capable of being a good person—clearly, that is the image of him held by Melody—but his capacity for civility falls to pieces when faced by his life-long nemesis, cousin Daphna.

Melody is played by Adelin Phelps, whose portrayal of a simple but truly goodhearted person is a departure from the more complex characters she has recently limned in Lullaby and Watermelon Hill. She brings to light the inner strength a "good person" must summon in the face of vile behavior. Michael Torsch completes the foursome as Jonah, dodging between wisdom and cowardice in his avoidance of the fray, while saving for the final moments his own grand gesture for bypassing the battle for Poppy's chai.

Michael Hoover has designed a wonderfully claustrophobia-inducing studio apartment that is a perfect setting for this pressure-cooker play. Costume, light, and sound designs all serve the production effectively, with the closing darkness at the end summarizing the whirlpool of feelings generated by the preceding maelstrom.

Anyone expecting a warm situation-comedy approach to inter-family squabbles served with ladles of borscht and slices of challah should be warned: This is not that play. But Bad Jews is a very, very good play with a script that is as smart as it is acerbic, and truly funny, even as it burns. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has assembled an ideal cast in an adroitly directed production. It is one of those plays that may not be for everyone, but for the right audience, it is a genuine must-see.