Review: 'DAI,' at Minnesota Jewish Theatre, contemplates violence in a civil society

by Graydon Royce
Star Tribune
Friday, August 19, 2016

We always see the aftermath — the carnage and chaos and horrible shock. Playwright Iris Bahr proposes a different twist on the terrorist attacks that regularly rock the volatile Middle East. In "DAI (enough)," Bahr glimpses the normal rhythm, banal and unsuspecting, in a Tel Aviv cafe in the minutes before a suicide bombing.

Actor Miriam Schwartz is performing Bahr's 90-minute show at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Under Warren Bowles' direction, Schwartz shuttles among 10 portrayals of folks who had happened to stop for a dab of caffeine on a lazy day. Punctuating the air between each vignette, a jarring "KA-BOOM!!!" signals that moment when the bomber detonates his device. And yes, it's really that loud. Check your pacemaker before entering the theater.

Bahr uses a British TV correspondent as the device for drawing out the character stories. As Christiane Saloniki, Schwartz explains that she's interviewing these denizens for a report on Israeli life. The actor then dons various shirts, hats and shoes to play the others.

Schwartz's voice, resonant and supple, has some muddy patches distinguishing among the accents — German to Russian to Hebrew to Israeli expat by way of the Upper West Side. A larger issue is her physical representations. She and Bowles admirably restrain the characterizations, but a tic or a shoulder slump or some other business could help us more quickly latch onto a few of these individuals.

The most interesting folks in Schwartz's work bring a passion or sharp point of view. There's a young Israeli raver promoting a "party for peace." She proclaims that lots of people partying on the drug Ecstasy is a better way to ease the Palestinian-Israel feud than the machinations of political leaders. This "drug of love and happiness" will change the terrorists' minds, she says. God bless her.

Then there is the Palestinian professor of statistics who argues that logic and rationality are the tools best fit to dig out of the morass. Schwartz is at her fiercest as a Brooklyn-born West Bank settler who brooks no talk of compromise.

These are the best and they all share a strong point of view — a polemic passion. Otherwise, "DAI" can feel inert and reiterative. If Bahr's sketches do move the needle in helping us (in our safe Midwestern perch) understand the Middle East, it is in our apprehension of terrorism's caprice in a civil society. This is the battlefield and the casualties are not soldiers. They are regular heroes — just like us.

'DAI (enough)' is an unsettling exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

by Jay Gabler
City Pages
Thursday, August 18, 2016

"I have never been one of those people who hunger to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," playwright Iris Bahr is quoted as saying in a program note for DAI (enough), "if only because I find that most such 'discussions' are just shouting matches between people whose minds have already been made up."

Accordingly, DAI is not a discussion. It's an act of remembrance and mourning, of observation and anger. It tells many stories, but doesn't attempt to tell all the stories there are to tell.

DAI is written for a single actor: Miriam Schwartz, in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production now onstage at the Highland Park Community Center. Schwartz plays each of 10 characters populating a Tel Aviv cafe that's attacked by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Bahr's play, set and first performed in 2006, is a series of monologues interrupted, in each case, by the shattering noise of the bomb's explosion.

The New York Times called the play "extremely unnerving," and that's certainly true of this production. The explosions are loud and sudden, and I flinched with sudden fear every time — even though I knew, every time, what was coming. As a dramatization of a state of terror, DAI is unmistakably effective, demonstrating how it might feel to live in a situation where, at any time, a sudden explosion might end lives in mid-sentence.

The monologues are framed as responses to questions posed by a British TV reporter who asks Israelis to talk about the roiling conflict, and talk is what we get: We hear from several native-born and immigrant Israelis, as well as from some visitors who are just passing through.

Among the characters are an expat who's come back to see family; an American who's volunteered to serve in the Israeli armed forces; a German man besotten with an Israeli lover who left him; a Russian prostitute who's passing as Jewish for, one might say, economic opportunity; and an idealistic young Israeli girl who's partnering with Palestinians for equal-opportunity sales of the drug ecstasy. Only one character is Palestinian herself: a middle-aged academic who's saddened by the straitened circumstances of young people like her son, but who argues that peace is the best path forward.

Schwartz is superb in this production, under the direction of Warren C. Bowles. The actor zeroes right in on each character, inhabiting her roles with empathy and confidence while avoiding any temptation to overplay or vamp. The small theater allows Schwartz a wide dynamic range as she literally steps into the shoes of one character after another; costume designer Liz Josheff Busa helps Schwartz to achieve these convincing transformations on a crowded but functional set by Michael Hoover.

The production succeeds at giving voice to a range of characters, who illustrate the complexity of the contemporary Israeli experience. It doesn't attempt to provide similar depth of insight into the Palestinian experience; when an unapologetic West Bank settler justifies her position angrily and at length, no one jumps up to refute her points, as they might if this were a "discussion." The Palestinian professor acknowledges her people's mistreatment at the hands of Israelis, but still makes regular pilgrimages to her favorite Tel Aviv cafe.

DAI (enough) gives us a look at this deadly conflict as seen from a series of Israeli perspectives. There's profound sadness here, but also hope. What can bring peace to this war-torn region? For all the understandable frustrations the word might evoke on both sides, a resolution might require some... yes, discussion.

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.

‘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.