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Bad Jews
by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
New Jewish Theatre
December 6, 2015

Antonio Rodriquez, Taylor Steward, Em Piro Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Antonio Rodriquez, Taylor Steward, Em Piro
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Bad Jews is a provocative title in and of itself. Joshua Harmon’s darkly comic play, currently playing at the New Jewish Theatre, is certainly thought-provoking. Exploring the issues of Jewish identity, family relationships, and personal grief, this play takes a broadly confrontational approach that’s sure to be the impetus for much thought and conversation among viewers.

The story follows three cousins after the death of their beloved grandfather, Poppy, who was a respected community leader and Holocaust survivor. The contrast between the cousins couldn’t be greater. All three are Jewish, but their views about Judaism and how it relates to them personally couldn’t be more different. Daphna Feygenbaum (Em Piro) is the ostentatiously devout cousin, for whom Judaism means following and studying the religious teachings and constantly holding her cousins accountable for not being as observant as she is. She gets along reasonably well with her mild-mannered younger cousin Jonah (Pete Winfrey), who keeps a lot of his own personal views to himself and mostly tries to keep from being caught in the middle between cousin Daphna and his older brother Liam (Antonio Rodriguez), a grad student and self-described “Bad Jew” who identifies as an atheist and is constantly at odds with Daphna, who he insists on referring to not by her chosen name but by her given name, Diana. Also brought into the midst of all the acrimony is Melody (Taylor Steward), Liam’s somewhat flighty, non-Jewish girlfriend who becomes a further point of contention between Liam and Daphna. The real struggle, though, is over what to do about a cherished family heirloom–Poppy’s “chai” necklace. “Chai” means “life” in Hebrew, and the necklace was a valued personal treasure of Poppy’s that he kept with him throughout his time in a concentration camp during World War II. For the cousins, and especially for Daphna and Liam, this valued item holds different meanings–a personal connection to Poppy, but also different aspects of his story that resonate differently with them.

The characters, like the play, are a study in extremes with one exception, which presents the play’s biggest problem. The Jonah character simply isn’t defined enough to hold up between the two extremes of his brother and cousin. Melody is also an extreme in a way, but not as sharply defined as the increasingly caustic Liam and Daphna. The actors do an excellent job of making the characters believable, though, especially the likeable Winfrey as the more moderate Jonah. Steward plays the somewhat vacuous Melody with about as much depth as the character could display. Piro, as Daphna, is full of zeal and talks a mile a minute, making her character’s implacable determination somewhat bearable for a time. The same goes for Rodriguez, who gives an energetic performance as Liam, who is preoccupied in a way both by his hatred of his cousin and his love of Melody.

Daphna and Liam both make points worth thinking about, although this play seems to be designed to raise issues for thinking about rather than offering concrete resolutions. A lot of important issues are raised considering personal identity, the cultural and religious aspects of Judaism, and also generally how adult cousins can relate to one another. In fact, one of the play’s highlights is when the cousins are able to put their differences aside for just a few minutes as they share a personal story of a shared memory of Poppy. One of the best successes of this play is that Poppy, who necessarily doesn’t appear on stage, is such a well-realized character. 

The set, designed by Dunsi Dai, is an authentically realized representation of a high-end New York apartment, appropriately cluttered because it’s been serving basically as a temporary residence for the cousins. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes represent the characters well, from the upwardly mobile Liam and Melody, to the more casual attire of Daphna and Jonah.  There’s also fine work from lighting designer Kimberly Klearman, props designer Kyra Bishop, and sound designer Zoe Sullivan, providing a suitable atmosphere for the situations of the play.

Bad Jews is a play that raises a lot of important, relevant issues for today’s world. Sometimes, I think the tone can get in the way of the issues, and I do wish the Jonah character had been better developed especially. Still for the most part this is an intense, well thought-out play that explores a modern family dealing with some important and sometimes polarizing issues.

Pete Winfrey, Em Piro Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Pete Winfrey, Em Piro
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Bad Jews at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 23, 2015.

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