TheatreLab’s ‘Bad Jews’ throws tradition out the window
What is the responsibility of individuals to perpetuate their religion? Should we be concerned that the world is becoming so homogenized that entire races, cultures and religions are in danger of becoming extinct?
Specifically, has three thousand years of Jewish history and tradition become irrelevant to modern Jews?
These questions are at the heart of Joshua Harmon’s riveting play Bad Jews, now being produced by TheatreLAB, in partnership with the Jewish Community Center under the direction of their Artistic Director Debra Clinton, presented as a joint entry to the Richmond “Acts of Faith” festival.
The story concerns three Jewish millennial cousins (two brothers and their girl cousin) meeting on the occasion of their Grandfather’s death. The brothers are Liam and Jonah Haber and the girl Daphna Feygenbaum. It is arranged by the parents that the kids will share a studio apartment that the boys’ parents purchased down the hall from their own massive family apartment (they call the studio apartment “the Guest Room” (!)). Did I mention we’re talking New York City, Riverside and 84th? I’d be OK with that.
The cousins call their Grandfather “Poppy,” already a sign that this family has eschewed the traditional Yiddish names for grandparents, “Bubbe” and “Zayda”.
Poppy was a Holocaust survivor. The plot concerns who is to inherit a prized piece of his religious jewelry that he kept and hid throughout his Nazi imprisonment. The granddaughter, who professes strict adherence to her faith as a testament to her grandfather’s legacy, or her older male cousin who shuns his faith, dumbly misses his grandfather’s funeral and has obtained the piece while the man was still alive in order to propose to his Christian, blond haired, blue eyed (Aryan?) girlfriend? The younger brother just asks to be left out of the argument. Oy vey!
Is it coincidence that playwright Harmon focuses on Jews in their 20’s, whom society has dubbed “millennials,” considering the culture on the chopping block has literally been around for millennia?
Recriminations and belittling invectives fly between the two cousins as they challenge and test each other’s honesty and faith. In the end each character is exposed for their prejudices and delusions. In between, believe it or not, is a lot of very tense comedy.
The script is wickedly funny. But it is a humor based in pain and self-delusion. We laugh wildly because the gamesmanship delights us as if we were watching a match in the Roman Coliseum. We fall on the floor with each successful character assassination. What’s wrong with us?
Debra Clinton sets the tone. She gives it a Jewish soul. I know, “you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this show… blah blah,” but it helps. She is a part of the history she needs to draw upon. She has the culture in her veins. She has the talent and skill to inform her direction with that knowledge. It pays off well. Her mostly non-Jewish cast were pretty convincing as well.
Daphna, the girl cousin, is the catalyst for the drama. The playwright’s description of her is so good that it bears sharing:
“DAPHNA FEYGENBAUM – 22, Liam & Jonah’s first cousin. 2/3 body, 1/3 hair. Thick, intense, curly, frizzy, long brown hair. Hair that clogs a drain after one shower. Hair you find on pillows and in corners of the room and in your refrigerator six months after the head from which it grew last visited. Hair that could not be straightened even if you had four hours and three hairdressers double-fisting blow driers. Hair that screams: Jew.”
Hilarious. Only a Jew is allowed to write that kind of painful truth. If you or I have many Jewish friends, we know Daphna, whose real name is Diane. “Daphna” being her make believe Israeli machine gun toting momma pseudonym. It’s a wonderful role. In this production, Daphna is played by Kelsey Cordrey. She has hair. A lot of it. When stacked like a chimney atop her head, Ms. Cordrey almost hits Jewfro. So close. Having no curls costs her.
Ms. Cordrey more than makes up for her curl-lessness with her performance. She hits a stand up triple. She is, by turns, hilarious and scary. Strong arming her male cousins to the corners of the room like trapped animals with her fury and command, she plots her degradations like a rattlesnake waiting for the rat to get just close enough to devour. She mines every laugh that the play affords her, sometimes just with a look, more often with spot on timing.
I know it’s silly to find anything to critique, but after trying hard it did occur to me that perhaps Ms. Cordrey’s Daphna plays innocent victim a bit much when there are stronger choices to be found. Deluded bad ass Israeli soldier girl might be another avenue to explore. Who knows?
Unfortunately, Ms. Cordrey is not challenged strongly enough and her power escalates in her dizzying quest of fulfilling her Israeli Nirvana. While fun to watch, with such dominance there is little need for the actress to find the difficult places in the script where she can tap into the character’s vulnerability and show us why Daphna acts the way she does and what triggers affect her, information (typically contained in monologues) which would be very useful in engendering our empathy, thereby making her case even stronger.
Her cousin Liam is in charge of bringing the shark down. Evan Nestaff had the honor which he took with gusto. Liam is dismissive, privileged and cocky. He’s a prick. His pretense of superiority and macho demeanor are rooted in his own insecurities and defensiveness.
Mr. Nasteff is an easy actor to watch. Handsome and steadfast, we want him to put his overbearing cousin in her place, which he does up to a point. Somewhere, though, his character switches to defense and stays there. His cocky steadfastness gives way to cornered animal. He treats his cousin like Kafka’s bug, but he also coils at her attack like a little girl. Slight man-downing. Or maybe it’s just that he too needs to find more places to expose and explain himself to us, also being in need of our empathy.
I have no way of knowing but I might guess Ms. Clinton wanted Liam to be Daphne’s match. Maybe I’m meshuggana.
Impervious to most of Daphna’s venom is Melody, the non-Jewish girlfriend (known as a “shiksa” in Yiddish). In one sense she is the easiest target for teasing. Catherine Carol Walker however turns the dumb blonde role into one of simplicity and dignity. She averts most character assassinations aimed at her by innocently not “getting it.” She may not have the most brains in the room but she is the most self-assured of the bunch and treats the others with the most respect. Ms. Walker, who happens to be a wonderful singer, croaks out “Summertime” so badly that you’d never know she had any training. In my opinion the hardest thing for an actor to do (besides really listening) is to dumb down their skills or intelligence. Ms. Walker manages to do both in splendid comedic fashion.
As Jonah Haber, Ethan Malamud has a most difficult assignment
How do you energize passivity? He spends the entire play asking to be left out of the argument, retreating to his headphones to drown out the noise. He has a lot of downtime.
In my view, doing nothing is the third hardest skill for an actor to execute onstage (listening and dumbing down 1 and 2). Mr. Malamud, probably the youngest actor of the cast, is very engaging but hasn’t quite mastered the skill of being present yet invisible when the focus is on others. It’s a minor fault that will disappear as his resume mounts. To his credit when his moments came, he made smart choices and showed a decent flair for comedic timing.
The ensemble as a whole worked very well. Ms. Clinton’s pacing was exciting if slightly frenetic. I did think the stage was too busy too often and the flow somewhat detracted by the obstacles put on the stage floor. Because the four of them are forced to sleep in a studio apartment, the floor is cluttered with air mattresses, handbags and luggage, causing a few traffic jams and unsure footings.
The scenic design by Michael Todd was very smart and well done (save the floor clutter). The Basement theatre space was again used very creatively, the set curving around the wall in a pleasant arc which was very effective in all but one usage. The hallway scenes between the brothers were on extreme stage left leaving audience members who were seated facing stage right (myself included) having to pivot their heads to the right, often sitting forward, straining to see and obscuring the view of the patron to their left.
Michael Jarrett’s lighting design offered little variety and was a bit too intense. Casey Jones’ costume choices were appropriate and functional. David White’s fight choreography at the end of the play heightened a tense moment and made believable what could have easily been a clunky confrontation.
TheatreLAB produces relevant important plays and has a dedicated and talented coterie of associates. Their production of Bad Jews fits their mission, exposes Richmond to great writing and teaches all how to love their Jewish neighbors better. Who could ask for anything more?
“It’s an opportune time to have these discussions about reflecting on where we come from.”September 15, 2016
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