Bad Jews at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company: A Four-Way Discussion

Cherry & Spoon / MN Theater Love
Wednesday, May 4, 2016

All three of us at Minnesota Theater Love (Carly, Jules and KRL) attended Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's production of Bad Jews (running now through May 22) on the same night as Jill of the esteemed Cherry and Spoon blog. There was much to discuss!

Since the play is four people talking at and with each other, we decided to do a four-way... review of Bad Jews. What follows is our (mostly) unedited conversation.

Carly
So, Bad Jews, y'all!

KRL
Yes!

Jill
Talk about bloodthirsty!

KRL
Initial reaction - I really liked it. Great cast, good set, and I thought a really good script. And yes - bloodthirsty!

Jill
Agreed. Compelling, hilarious, well-acted, and tons of food for thought.

Jules
I don't know why, but I was thinking that it was going to be more of a comedy. Not that it wasn't funny, but more in a "Oh no, they didn't" kind of way.

KRL
What do you think Jewish theater is all Mel Brooks? Dang, Jules. wink emoticon j/k

Jules
I think I had conflated Bad Jews in my head with the endless run of "wacky comedies with Jews" that I see advertised in NY. Old Jews Telling Jokes, etc.

KRL
Julie - I do agree that with a title like Bad Jews you assume it is comedy? 

Carly
So, the setting is a studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and the play involves three cousins (Daphna, Jonah and Liam) fighting over their just-passed grandfather's Chai, a necklace with great religious and emotional significance to the family.

Jill
OK, let's get into it. Who did you side with in the big argument? Did you want Daphna or Liam to get Poppy's Chai?

KRL
For most of it - Daphna. Liam came across as a total dick who honestly didn't care for the deeper connection she had to the chai. (And I wish the program had given some glossary for those of us who are non-Hebrew/Yiddish speakers.)

Jules
I wanted to know what the Chai was earlier too.

Jill
I found myself taking both sides in various points of the argument. They both make valid points and it's not an easy thing, the balance between the old ways and the new (tradition!). Also, they're both jerks and say horribly offensive things! I was kind of hoping sweet Jonah would get it.

KRL
At the end of the show though...Daphna came across as being as much of a user as Liam. That makes me rethink my view of the whole show.

Jules
I feel like the playwright did a good job of preparing us to side with Daphna and then by the time we finally met Liam, we were prepared to dislike him.

KRL
I agree.

Jill
Part of the reason why Daphna and Liam don't get along is that they're too much alike. They're both passionate, self-righteous, unable to listen to the other side. They even use the same language to describe each other, "above it all."

KRL
And Michael Hanna kicked butt as Liam. So angry and such a jerk. Wow.

Carly
Frankly, I was like, "Get it ON already Daphna and Liam." Just me?

Jill
They're cousins, gross!

Jules
And yes, then the tables turn and you see Liam's side, and you see the pettiness in Daphna.

KRL
Carol - I felt some of that even with Daphna and Jonah...except he is gay.

Jill
Jonah's gay? I missed that.

KRL
That is how I read him. Nothing was said but...

Carly
Yeah, but am I right? Liam and Daphna were practically all over each other! And to my mind, I didn't see a realistic relationship between Liam and his gf, Melody.

Jill
Melody is everything Daphna (and his family?) is not. Uncomplicated.

Carly
TOO uncomplicated?

KRL
I agree - Liam and Melody are not a great match. She seems like a choice made just to piss off Daphna and/or the family.

Jules
I wasn't getting that chemistry, but I thought there was way more to the backstory between all three of them than what we were told. I expected a revelation of something between them before the play ended. Like maybe they had had a more intense relationship before.

Carly
I thought Jonah and Daphna had a really realistic cousin relationship.

Jill
And can I just say - these are four really talented young actors who were totally in it for the 90 minutes of the play, especially Michael Hanna and Miriam Schwartz with their long fast passionate infuriating monologues. And I kind of wanted to see them hug at the curtain call just to make sure they're OK!

Carly
AGREED, Jill! Great job by all performers.

Jules
I totally wanted to see them all hug at the end, too, Jill!

Carly
I think they should make out at the curtain call.

Jules
Okay, that might be a bit much, C!

Carly
Sorry.

Carly
And I don't think anyone should get the Chai. Jonah is SO passive that someone would immediately push him down and take it.

KRL
Julie - I agree about the backstory. But I like that Joshua Harmon (playwright) and Hayley Finn (director) allowed US to fill in the backstory.

Jill
It's definitely one of those plays that gives you the feeling these lives were happening before the play begins, and continue after the play ends. I like that.

Jules
Good point Jill, their story doesn't end and you can see them continuing this struggle.

KRL
Miriam Schwartz was amazing!! the energy and passion and all the different levels of it. Michael Hanna was good though I felt he played "Anger" too much and didn't find as many levels to that frustration/anger as Miriam did.

Carly
I was just going to say that, Keith! Agreed!!!

Jill
And they both have beautiful hair. smile emoticon

KRL
Ha ha ha - so jealous!

Carly
I thought Michael Torsch as Jonah was very watchable in a fairly minor part.

KRL
Michael Torsch has such amazing reactions! It was fascinating to watch him watch the action...so much happening with that face and body language of his.

Jill
Jonah's reveal of his own tribute to Poppy at the end (no spoilers here!) brought tears to my eyes! Michael Torsch founds lots of layers in silence.

KRL
YES!

Carly
Very well done.
Any other elements that stand out for y'all? Any objections to the language or speeches?

Jules
Jonah was really interesting, and I definitely wanted to know more about him. I felt like we saw that there was much more going on with him (which there was). And his role between his cousin and his brother was very realistic. Someone's always in the middle of those things.

Jill
No objections but some of the things these cousins said to each other literally made my jaw drop. They reeeaaaaaally didn't like each other, and y'all are right, maybe there was more to that.

Carly
Singing, "Let's get it on ..."

Jill
I totally felt for Jonah because I'm like him, the peacemaker, not wanting to get involved in the argument, just wanting everyone to get along!

KRL
I was surprised at some of the language. Then again, I came from the assumption that Jewish Theater would tend to be more "clean" as Christian theater is clean - meaning no swearing, etc. So my surprise was more about where I was coming from as an audience member.

Jill
I think it's less religious Jewish theater and more cultural Jewish theater. Judaism is unique in that it's as much of a culture as it is religious belief.

KRL
Jill - I'm not sure Jonah wanted everyone to get along, he just didn't want to be a part of it. I think there is a difference there? Then again, at the end with his tribute - maybe he also wanted the Chai but knew that between the two other headstrong character he had no chance and gave up?

Jules
There was some deep-seated resentment that went way beyond fighting an inheritance. Even before the subject came up, Daphna and Liam were at each other's throats from the moment the apartment door opened.

KRL
Jill - totally agree with your comment about culture vs religion.

Jules
Keith, I felt like Jonah was just doing his own thing. Going along with what the others said as much as he could. Especially since he knew all the while that he'd already made his connection with Poppy.

Jill
They obviously disagree on what it means to be Jewish, and perhaps part of the resentment of each other is the fear that their way isn't so righteous as they think. Like they have to put the other person down to prove their belief is the only way.

KRL
Julie - good point. He clearly had already made peace with the fact that he wouldn't get anything. Jill - yes!

Carly
Absolutely, I was going to say this earlier, that there's such a spectrum of Jewish identity in this play, from the cultural Jew to the strict observant and then Jonah somewhere in the middle.

Jill
And that's the crux of the play - how do we hold on to our history and tradition, while still embracing the multi-cultural global world we live in?

Carly
And in some ways, are they all "bad Jews"?

Jules
Keith, I don't think Jonah wanted anything. He had exactly what he needed to remember Poppy in the way he felt best. Instead of focusing on a physical object (which is much easier to start a fight over), he just did what he felt was right. And did Jonah even talk about being Jewish?

Carly
Not really.

Jill
I don't think any of them are "bad Jews," they're just people trying to live their lives by their beliefs. And perhaps being a bit too judgy about people who don't share their beliefs.

Jonah didn't get much of a chance to talk at all!

KRL
Ha ha ha - so true about Jonah

Jules
I think it was interesting that Daphna felt she had the greater claim due to her overt commitment to being Jewish. But the reason that Liam wanted the Chai was also respectful of the family history and of the importance, but not attaching the religious significance.

KRL
I think Daphna and Liam were just spiteful all the way through and that there would be a way for everyone to get what they wanted IF they weren't so focused on their own needs.

Jill
Right, they needed an impartial moderator. And if I were Melody, I would have accepted the proposal but not the Chai. The symbolism of the offer is enough, accepting it is not worth the trouble it caused in this family that she wants to be accepted into!

Jules
I also think that Daphna feels that the way to be Jewish is to BE JEWISH. And I'm guessing that pridefulness and spite are not valued in Judaism any more than they are in any other belief system.

Carly
I hated the idea of Melody having the Chai. Being a bitter spinster librarian, I think the family might as well kiss the Chai goodbye if it goes to Melody. You think Liam is in anything for the long haul? Oh, hell no.

KRL
Jill - I agree. Or accept it until the wedding ring then pass it along to Daphna

Carol - yes! you KNOW a divorce is going to happen with those two.

Jules
Jill - YES! I wanted Melody to refuse the Chai too. It had such great religious, family, and cultural significance to both Daphna and Liam, but it literally meant nothing more to her than a piece of jewelry.

Carly
I feel like Jonah was that moderator for a long time and had given up.

Jill
Daphna definitely has a point that we have to pass on our history and traditions to our children, because if we don't, they'll be gone forever. But Liam also has a point that you love who you love, and if you marry someone from a different tradition and pass on both traditions to your children, it's going to get diluted. It's "melting pot" vs. retaining unique cultures.

Carly
I found the Daphna's speech about dilution of Judaism through marriage and children to be most affecting.

KRL
I found most of the speeches were so interesting and well written. Truly made points without being like a monologue...if that makes sense? Or sounding like a speech.

Carly
I wish I believed the relationship and chemistry between Liam and Melody more--that would have helped the whole play for me.

Jill
Definitely. When my ancestors came to this country it was all about assimilation and "melting pot," so I have very few cultural traditions. But it seems in recent years we've realized that it's important to hold on to the language and traditions of our "homeland."

KRL
I'm glad they didn't try to do any New York accent in the production. I think that would have distanced the characters from the audience.

Jules
Jill - that's a great encapsulation of their argument. But the vehemence and anger went far beyond what made sense in the situation. But I think another reason that they are NOT Bad Jews is that they are still family. In spite of what appear to be unsurmountable differences, they are still in the same place for the same reason. Although Liam could have made more of an effort to be there. I don't think skiing and proposing are a good reason to be out of touch.

Carly
"Nothing is more important than family. Nothing." - Grandma Sophie, Brooklyn Bridge

Jill
Agreed about no NY accents, unless done well and naturally it's just distracting. It would be interesting to meet these kids' parents.

Jules
Keith, I like what you said about the monologues. They didn't feel like monologues, they felt natural to the characters, and like just the way they talked.

Carly
And yet --
I just feel—

Jill
The language was very natural.

Carly
I mean—

KRL
Even if it is done well, a story like this can play out anywhere. I think if they used accents they audience could relax and feel like "oh, this only happens in NYC" sort of attitude?

Jill
Yes - that!

Carly
I feel like sometimes, I can SEE THE DIALOGUE on the page, with the hyphens as they start and stop a sentence.

KRL
Ha ha ha ha - is that a good thing?

Carly
Keith, no. I'd call it MOSTLY natural.

Jules
Carol, I didn't feel that so much. I know exactly what you mean, but I didn't feel it.

Carly
I think there's definitely a stylized aspect to the dialogue. It gets better, but that kind of dialogue is tough to do naturally.

Jules
That's another reason not to do accents, because it's already stylized and adding another layer would complicate it, I think.

Carly
Abso.

KRL
It is tough to do but it felt true. More true than some Mamet or Pinter or other modern playwrights.

Jill
Was this all of yours first time at MJTC? What did you think of the space and the work?

KRL
It was our first.

Carly
Very intimate, liked the space.

KRL
The space worked really well for this show. I'm really curious how it works with other scripts.

Carly
Good sightlines, for instance, I could see clearly the man in front of me who had taken his shoes off and was touching his feet.

KRL
Yeah....not great audience behavior.

Jules
I think it was my first. I was surprised what they could do with that space. I auditioned there once. I did a Shakespeare monologue. It wasn't pretty. smile emoticon.

Carly
Keith, I wondered too. How do bigger shows there work? Julie, was it "to be or not to be"? Again??

Jill
I like the space. It's intimate, with great sightlines and the sound carries well.

What do you mean by bigger, bigger cast? Most of the shows I've seen are smaller cast/shows.

Carly
I mean, musicals, shows that take up more space.

Jules
Eh on the sightlines. If you were behind a big head (you know who you are) it was tricky when people were not standing up. But it's probably better if you're further up.

KRL
Hey!! I was sitting in front of you! smile emoticon

Jill
They did The Last Five Years unmiked and it was lovely!

Jules
I think their shows are mostly small, aren't they?

KRL
Jill - I would have loved to see that production there. Wow!

Carly
Could they do Leap of Faith there? I mean, they probably wouldn't ...

Jules
Could Jonas Nightingale be Jewish? Discuss.

Carly
Ha!

Jill
I think the only musical I've seen there is The Last Five Years.

KRL
Looking at the website - all of their shows this season are six actors and under.

Carly
I was sort of peering around the set to see what the stage looked like.

Final thoughts? Direction? Lighting? Set design?

Jules
They must have an exit behind the set there, but not much backstage space, I'd guess. I thought the set was quite realistic for such a small space. But perfect for a New York studio apartment!

Carly
For SURE.

KRL
Direction and lighting were great! Nothing distracting (except for the one late light cue).

Jill
Great set and very realistic, and I suspect it was recycled from Tale of the Allergist's Wife.

KRL
It was a bit awkward having the two guys and the playing space by the door so close to the stairs and audience. And I don't think it was used consistently - the space I mean. The boys head down the hallway to the parents apt, and I believe that is how Liam and Melody enter...yet when they left they left going around back of the set.

Jill
Oh, and I loved when they were casually passing around the M&Ms as they were arguing! That's family!

Carly
Great touch!

Jules
Agreed. I liked that they were actually eating the food. Like people.

Jill
I was a little jealous of Miriam's PJs and wishing I were in mine!

Carly

I seldom can see a show with a bed in it when I don't want to crawl up and take a nap. On the twin, of course!

Jill
Keith - agreed about the awkward hallway scenes.

KRL
The eating was perfect and a great choice.

Jill
I am obsessed with people eating (and especially cooking and then eating) on stage.

Carly
Frankie and Johnny, am I right, Jill?

Jill
Yes! I only wish they had shared the omelet with the audience.

Jules
But it kind of bugged me that there were only two glasses in the cupboards. Until I thought about keeping an extra apartment for guests, and why would you overly furnish it. Carol, it was kind of like our London flat. Two cups, two plates, two forks...

KRL
So - sightlines were a bit tough because when Daphna reached into the cupboard for a glass, I could see that it was empty. So...it can be a bit tricky. I have a feeling the fridge was empty as well but no one could see it.

Jill
I think we're all hungry and tired, shall we wrap this up?

Carly
Yes, for sure, Jill. The sun, has gone, to bed and so must you?

Jill
Hey, I got that reference!

Carly
NERD!

KRL
End comment: It kept me involved, I was amused and it gave food for thought. Great cast, good solid direction (especially with all those speeches...never static), and I look forward to seeing more work there.

Jill
Do we all agree that Bad Jews is definitely worth seeing - well done, thought-provoking, and with things you can relate to no matter what your cultural background?

Carly
For shiz.

KRL
Jill - yes!

Jill
This was my 10th MJTC show and I've never been disappointed, so I hope y'all see more of them!

Carly
WE WILL!

Jules
Wow, Jill, that's a lot of shows. I feel like I read about them but never go. Definitely working on that!

Carly
Yeah, we just don't see enough theater.

Jill
You Minnesota Theater Lovers are such slouches.