MJTC gives local premiere to ‘Bad Jews’

By Doris Rubenstein
American Jewish World
Thursday, April 21st, 2016

What, exactly, defines someone as a “bad Jew”? It depends, or so it seems, on whom you ask.

To a member of the Neturei Karta, for example, any Jew who recognizes the State of Israel is a bad Jew, since “good Jews,” like themselves, are those who are waiting for the Messiah to arrive and establish a Jewish kingdom under Hashem.

There was a controversy some 20-plus years ago when incumbent Minnesota Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, an active Reform Jew up for re-election, accused his opponent, Paul Wellstone, of being a “bad Jew.” Evidently, the Jewish electorate disagreed with that opinion in a big way and helped elect the “bad Jew” to Congress.

Does being a “bad Jew” equate to being a bad person?

There’s nothing like a death in the family to bring out the worst in people. This unhappy truth is displayed with delectably savage humor in Bad Jews, a zesty play by Joshua Harmon that opens April 30 at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s regular venue in the Highland Park Community Center, St. Paul.

Artistic Director Barbara Brooks knew what she was doing when she invited director Hayley Finn — as a New York born-and-bred Jew, not to mention her position as associate artistic director at the Playwrights’ Center — to bring her perspective to address this “bad Jew” question that native Minnesotans just can’t do convincingly. Finn coaxed an Ivey Award-winning performance from Sally Wingert in Rose in MJTC’s 2014 season, so we can expect no less from her work in this new production.

Finn hasn’t seen the original New York production of Bad Jews, but she was able to have a conversation with Harmon, its privacy-seeking playwright.

“Talking with him enabled me to get his intention better, to get a feel for the style and tone of his concept of the characters,” Finn told the AJW. “This is a play that demands that the audience get into the minds and hearts of the characters so that we can understand their psychologies.”

Bad Jews allows us into a post-funeral gathering of 20-something cousins — with a non-Jewish bystander for balance and good measure — working out the future ownership of a piece of their late grandfather’s estate that is fraught with symbolism, both Jewish and material. Indeed, according to Finn, the play is all about the varying philosophies of the protagonists and how they apply them to the death of their grandfather.

Bad Jews asks, “How do Jewish traditions and the Holocaust play out in the thinking of millennial Jews? Do they see themselves as good Jews or bad?”

The Twin Cities theater community is fortunate to have a wealth of millennials who have ample stage experience to pull off a show like this with convincing performances.

Miriam Schwartz was previously seen in MJTC’s Becoming Dr. Ruth, Jericho and Handle with Care. This graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. Actor Training Program has performed in the Guthrie’s Uncle Vanya as Sonia, and has many other theater credits.

Michael Hanna appears at MJTC for the first time, but is no stranger to major Twin Cities stages. He recently starred as Romeo at Park Square Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet. Other recent theater credits include the Guthrie (My Fair Lady, Born Yesterday, Those Who Favor Fire) and Mixed Blood Theatre (Stars and Stripes). Hanna, too, is a graduate of the U of MN/Guthrie Theater program.

Michael Torsch returns to MJTC, having appeared there already in The Twenty-Seventh Man, Jericho and New Jerusalem. Adding to his theatrical credits, Torsch recently directed and acted in an original stage adaptation of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game at the Bedlam Lowertown.

Adelin Phelps appears at MJTC for the first time, fresh from playing Sharon in Watermelon Hill at the History Theater, which was hot on the heels of her performance in Lullaby at Theater Latté Da. Other credits include Park Square Theatre (King Lear), Illusion Theatre/Transatlantic Love Affair (These Old Shoes, Ash Land) and Walking Shadow Theatre (Compleat Female Stage Beauty).

With Bad Jews premiering shortly after we “good Jews” have celebrated Pesach with the Four Questions at the seder, this might be a good time to ask a fifth question: “What is a bad Jew?” And see if the answer lies in this theatrical production.