Speakeasy’s intense ‘Bad Jews’ crackles and sizzles
BOSTON — The name alone has created a controversy of sorts.
The Speakeasy Stage Company‘s production “Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts isn’t a commentary on an ethnic group, but rather a comment on the dynamics of the many different kind of people inside any particular ethnic group, and whether any particular characteristics — or set of values — makes them “better” or “worse.”
If we don’t know what makes for a “good Jew,” how easy will it be to tell who is a “bad Jew?”
In Harmon’s play, smartly directed by Rebecca Bradshaw, you have to look beyond the title. What does it mean to be Jewish? Can you be a good Jew if you’re not particularly observant when it comes to regular attendance at a synagogue, or if you marry outside the faith?
Cousins Jonah Haber (Alex Marz) and Diana “Daphna” Feygenbaum (Alison McCartan) are relaxing in the Upper West Side studio apartment of Jonah and brother Liam after the service for their beloved grandfather, Poppy.
The service has already held , and conspicuous by his absence was oldest grandson Liam Haber (Victor Shopov), who has been away on a ski vacation with girlfriend Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon) and incommunicado until he arrives at the apartment with her.
Not only is Melody not Jewish, she’s about as non-Jewish as can be, an uncomplicated — to say the least — WASP-ish blond.
Shopov, last seen a few yards down the street at the BCA’s Plaza Theatre in Zeitgeist’s searing “Bent,” correctly sees icebergs ahead when he discovers that he and Melody will be sharing quarters with Jonah and Daphna, who is already pissed that Liam failed to make the service and that his newest girlfriend continues his trend of dating non-Jewish women.
Gordon’s Melody is sweetly vulnerable and perplexed that she seems to be at the center of the conflict. At one point, the naïve, clueless Melody agrees to perform “Porgy and Bess” in an effort to comfort Daphna, who promptly eviscerates her.
Daphna had earlier hinted that she hoped to inherit the chai — a necklace with the Hebrew letters for “life” — that Poppy wore.
It had special significance because while he was in the prison camp, he hid the chai under his tongue for two years to keep it away from the Nazis.
Liam has it and Daphna wants it. Verbal bullets are flying as they go toe-to-toe over it.
Being Liam isn’t especially religious, shouldn’t Daphna, who intends to move to Israel and marry her Israeli soldier fiancée — have it? Or does Liam, the oldest grandchild who claims he was promised the chai by Poppy, deserve it?
Never mind marrying the Israeli soldier, McCartan as Daphna could be the Israeli solider.
Thus, “Bad Jews” features not one, but two world-class, profane, at times scatological rants, the first by Daphna and the rebuttal by Liam.
Both are hilariously funny, with phrases such as “Uber Jew” tossed around.
When the smoke finally clears, the survivors in Eric Levenson’s well-detailed apartment will still be cowering from their verbal wounds.
Meanwhile, Marz’s Jonah attempts largely to stay out of the fray, most of the time keeping his thoughts on Poppy and the chai to himself.
At various times, Harmon will touch on what it means to be Jewish, family legacy, Jews marrying outside the faith, and the importance of Israel and the Jewish faith itself.
There are nice little plot twists to be had towards the conclusion, one involving Daphna’s fiancée and another that will help us determine who really cared about Poppy the most, and who really deserves the chai.
“Bad Jews” rarely lets up in intensity, crackling with dialogue that sizzles, confidently and skillfully delivered by an excellent cast in 100 minutes without an intermission.
The Speakeasy Stage Company production of Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews.” Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw. Set design by Eric Levenson, costumes by Tyler D. Kinney, lighting by Chris Bocchiaro, sound by Edward Young. At the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 29. http://www.speakeasystage.com.