Review: BAD JEWS

by Lynn on November 1, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Joshua Harmon

Directed by Lisa Rubin

Set and costumes by Brian Dudkiewicz

Lighting by Itai Erdal

Sound by Dmitri Marine

Cast: Ellen Denny

Jamie Elman

Jake Goldsbie

Sarah Segal-Lazar

A terrific production of a mean-spirited little play, in which the playwright wants to explore questions of assimilation, faith, religion, familial loyalty and tradition but has created odious characters to make his points, thus negating the arguments.  Ick. 

 The Story. Jonah Haber, Liam Haber and Daphna Feygenbaum have gathered for the funeral of their grandfather, Poppy. Jonah and Liam are brothers and Daphna is their first cousin. They are all crammed into Jonah’s studio apartment. When Liam arrives he has his girlfriend Melody in toe. She is blonde, a bit of a ditz but seemingly kind and obviously not Jewish. Liam is crazy about her.

The characters reveal themselves quickly. Jonah is very easy going; doesn’t assert himself; doesn’t make waves and never wants to be involved in any confrontation. Daphna is a loud motor-mouthed manipulator who ferrets out the weaknesses in people and then zeroes in and doesn’t let go of verbally beating them down. She considers herself superior to her cousins because she is studying to be a rabbi, quotes all manner of religious Judaic doctrine and feels her beliefs are pure and better than anyone in her family. Liam is studying a segment of Japanese culture. He seems the least invested in the funeral. He had not kept in touch with the family to find out how his sick grandfather was. He missed the funeral because he lost his phone while skiing. Melody apparently had a phone but that didn’t seem to occur to Liam to use it.

At issue is something their grandfather treasured and both Daphna and Liam want it.

 The Production. It’s always fascinating to see a fearless cast tackle odious characters and not flinch from illuminating these characters’ darkest corners. And so it is with the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts production of Bad Jews now at the Greenwin Theatre, in the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Brian Dudkiewicz has designed a well appointed Manhattan studio apartment for Jonah– bathroom up stage, next to a small kitchen and counter with two high chairs, then the door of the apartment at the end.  While it’s fine for one person, the studio looks cramped with Jonah in his underwear on his double-sized pull-out bed, next to which is Daphna’s blow-up mattress on the floor covered with a sheet and blanket. Also up stage left from Daphna, on the floor, is a folded single deflated mattress ready for “blowing up” when Liam arrives.

Daphna, a very confident Sarah Segal-Lazar, comes out of the bathroom wearing a t-shirt, sweat-pants and socks and begins her grinding complaining of what Jonah (Jake Goldsbie)  is wearing (his underwear); that Liam (Jamie Elman) is expected but couldn’t manage to attend his grandfather’s funeral; how she was really the only person close to her grandfather; to slights both real and imagined. It’s almost non-stop and loaded with “up speak”.

Segal-Lazar is always on the move in that apartment, either flouncing from Jonah’s bed down to her mattress across to the kitchen, or the door and back. And the hair… Her hair is long and very curly. She flips it. She gathers it several times and bunches it up as if in a tight ponytail then flips it out again. She does tie it back a few times but then lets it out. It is beyond annoying. Is this a nervous actress who doesn’t know what to do with her hands or a character making a nervous point? The reason becomes clear when Liam arrives with Melody.

Liam and Daphna can’t stand each other. As Liam, Jamie Elman has a quiet, arrogant confidence who can give Daphna as good as she can. He stares her down and quietly listens to her gushing bilge before he let’s her have it with well chosen words. (I must confess that Daphna’s second act extended rant sounds more like the playwright showing off, than an overly confident character just letting loose) Liam’s superiority is also levelled at Jonah. Again Jamie Elman displays a focused attention, yet he’s impatient and we wait for his explosion and it comes resoundingly.

For his part Jake Goldsbie as Jonah almost slumps in an effort to avoid involvement. He says little and does not want to engage. He does rouse himself in defence when Daphna tries to speak for him, saying he agrees with her over an important matter. He puts her straight, but most of the time he’s focused in watching television and tries to ignore what’s going on in his ‘invaded space.’

And then there is Melody, played by a cheerful, buoyant Ellen Denny. Melody believes everybody should get along. She seems sweet. We see why Liam might love her. But then she too reveals a less than appealing side.

Director Lisa Rubin orchestrates and stages the cast of four with ease and confidence. There are times that close proximity in an argument might revert to violence. I liked that careful manipulation of the audience and that confidence in illuminating the characters in all their ugliness. These aren’t ‘bad Jews’ as much as they are just lousy people.

Comment. Bad Jews is Joshua Harmon’s most successful play. It’s not his best. I find it’s hollow in the centre. Similarly his other plays: Significant Other and Skintight are also about superficial characters lost and whining about their lot in life with precious little wherewithal to rise up and cope. In Skintight a successful older businessman wants to marry a 20 year old stud for the sex. The stud stays around for the older man’s money. Sigh.  It might be real life on one level but it makes for wearying playwriting. Joshua Harmon’s best play is Admissions—well written, deeply thought about the thorny issues of race, ethnicity and equal opportunity in being admitted to an elite school.

In Bad Jews Harmon’s intention of exploring assimilation vs. an intense religious devotion in the younger generation is not supported because the arguments come from such obnoxious, superficial people. Liam seems to want to carry on a family tradition regarding the treasure from his grandfather without making the effort to attend his grandfather’s funeral. His decision to marry out of the faith without a second of hesitation makes one question his motives and devotion to being a Jew.

Similarly Daphna’s determination to get her grandfather’s treasure for herself is also hollow. She’s arrogant because it just covers other inadequacies. Melody is a stereotypical blonde bimbo. How offensive and lazy of the playwright.

Finally, Jonah who didn’t want to get involved is so silent and so mysterious that his true grief for the loss of his grandfather, and his gesture to remember him comes from nowhere and is not earned. Bad Jews (what a deliberately incendiary title) is a mean-spirited little play given a terrific production. Oy.

Produced by the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts and presented by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.

Opened: Oct. 25, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 11, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

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