SpeakEasy's "Bad Jews": Anti-semantic?

Victor Shopov, Gillian Mariner Gordon, Alex Marz & Alison McCartan in "Bad Jews"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

No, that‘s not a typo, but a reference to the apparent political incorrectness of the title “Bad Jews”, a play by Joshua Harmon which is being given its New England premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company. Not to worry, though, this is not an anti-religious diatribe (it refers to a momentary culinary indiscretion), though it’s relentlessly cruel toward certain stereotypically strident members of a certain tribe, while simultaneously being hilarious and bitchy. The story of a struggle between two cousins, Liam Haber (Victor Shopov) and Daphna Feygenbaum (Alison McCartan), after the death of their much-loved grandfather, it’s also about a more universal struggle. Liam has pretty much dispensed with his Judaic heritage, both religious and cultural, whereas Daphna (née Diana) is in-your-face about her roots. Laim’s girlfriend Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon) and his brother Jonah (Alex Marz) are also involved, at least as targets. The gold chai (“life”) symbol on the necklace smuggled out of a concentration camp by their deceased “Poppy” is at the crux of their conflict, which runs much more deeply than this one artifact, namely what it signifies (or not) to each of the combatants. For the first third of the play, Harmon slowly but shrewdly positions potential land mines that will eventually take their tolls as the story progresses.

“Bad Jews”, set in New York’s upper West Side in “not quite winter, not quite spring”, begins with the playing of the John Lennon song “Imagine” (which Melody later references), “imagine all the people, living for today”, with no boundaries. Yet there are boundaries aplenty in this play, as each of the four players will reveal. A success Off-Broadway in 2013, then moved to a larger Broadway venue, in this version, as cleverly directed here by Rebecca Bradshaw, the hundred intermission-less minutes fly by. To describe their interactions here would be to spoil the gradually unleashed moments of tension and the motivations behind them. Suffice it to say that their battles will unveil all their individual weaknesses and strengths. McCartan nails Daphna as one of those pious but conflicted zealots bordering on the sociopathic who identify, then mercilessly attack, the vulnerabilities of people they encounter. Shopov, a local treasure previously known for more serious roles (“Normal Heart”, “Bent”) commands our attention as the self-centered, superficially laid-back Liam, a time bomb just waiting for the final insult to trigger his inevitable meltdown, which is hysterically funny. Gordon is perfectly gooey sweet until she too reaches her breaking point after an unforgettable performance of “Summertime”. But it’s Marz as the almost non-verbal Jonah who most tellingly embodies the play’s simmering pressure cooker setting. The four perfectly cast actors are an amazingly well-tuned quartet. They’re ably supported by a fine technical crew, from the appropriately chaotic Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, to the Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, to the realistic Lighting Design by Chris Bocchiaro and Sound Design by Edward Young.

It’s difficult to believe this is Harmon’s first major play. It has some flaws often found in a freshman venture; several long bathroom breaks are conveniently spaced to facilitate plot points, and the initial verbiage for both women overdoes it with the Valley-Girl-speak. But the work overcomes all of this with its wise and perceptive take on modern day culture. It’s not difficult to see how this has become one of the ten most produced plays in America, with its witty amalgam of roots as diverse as Woody Allen’s plays and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. Harmon has said elsewhere that modern Jews’ remembrance of the history of their forbears has been “reduced to a piece of horseradish”, and that “different members of a family feel differently about their shared legacy…the ‘bad’ member is in the eye of the beholder”. True enough, as he (and we) refuse, or are merely unable, to choose sides. We’re way too busy holding our sides with laughter.

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