By Joshua Harmon. Directed by Jay Brazeau. A Famous Artists Limited production. At the Norman Rothstein Theatre on Thursday, November 12. Continues until November 21
There are serious questions at the heart of Bad Jews, but they’re wrapped in some wicked comedy. That’s a winning package.
Joshua Harmon’s play takes place after a funeral, as the dead man’s grandchildren argue over who should inherit the gold chai pendant that their Poppy managed to hang on to for two years in a concentration camp. Jonah doesn’t want it; his cousin, Daphna, does—and she feels she deserves it more than Jonah’s brother, Liam, who missed the funeral for a skiing trip. When Liam shows up with his girlfriend, Melody, the situation is ripe for conflict.
Bad Jews has been one of the most produced plays in American theatre in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. The characters, particularly the women, are terrific creations. Daphna is a heat-seeking missile trained on the vulnerabilities of others; her tactics range from passive-aggressiveness to open warfare as she relentlessly insists that she, as the most observant Jew, is entitled to Poppy’s pendant. She flaunts her piety with her new Hebrew name (she used to be Diana) and a boyfriend in Israel. Liam is far more secular—this is not the first time he’s dating outside the faith—but he’s the oldest son, and he has a tradition of his own to follow.
Director Jay Brazeau’s casting is note-perfect, and the acting is consistently excellent. Goldie Hoffman’s Daphna is a force of nature, marking her territory in the studio apartment the cousins are sharing and finding the fear beneath the character’s self-righteous poses. Alex Rose’s Liam simmers until he boils over; his fury is at once genuine and comically satisfying. Amitai Marmorstein doesn’t have a lot to do as the passive Jonah, but his loose-limbed self-erasure suits the character beautifully. And Kayla Dunbar strikes comic gold as the well-intentioned but clueless Melody: just wait until Daphna draws her out on her passion for opera.
Harmon’s script is loaded with nasty, irreverent humour: “Do not Holocaust me,” warns Liam when Daphna’s lecturing becomes too earnest for him. But it also asks provocative questions about the value of religious commitment and cultural tradition. “Now when it’s easiest and safest to be Jewish,” Daphna asks, “we should all stop?”
Bad Jews isn’t perfect—too often, the brothers tend to stand around and let Daphna yammer on for longer than is plausible, and most of the action is placed curiously far upstage—but it’s never boring. What’s not to like?