Bad Jews is a thought-provoking performance

Wednesday, July 19, 2017 0 Comments

Bad Jews is a thought-provoking performance

Poppy managed to survive Auschwitz and hide his father’s chai, a necklace that translates to ‘life’ in Hebrew, all through the camp and war. Now that Poppy has passed, he leaves his chai to his three grandchildren, but who deserves it the most? Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon has come to the black box theater stage at the Main Street Playhouse where Daphna, Liam and Jonah engage in a cerebral tug of war while Liam’s girlfriend Melody tries befriending her boyfriend’s family at the worst possible time.  

Director Robert Coppel’s assembled cast of seasoned and novice talent brings depth and variety to Bad Jews, particularly Hannah Benitez as Daphna Feygenbaum with her ability to make Daphna’s rough edges palatable and complex in a play with the capacity to devolve its characters into caricatures when in the hands of lesser performers. The cast includes Joseph Paul Pino as Liam Haber, Matthew Ferro as Jonah Haber, and Kimmi Johnson as Melody.  

Daphna is unrelenting. She’s a steamroller, even for herself, unable to finish the thoughts moving at a rapid-fire pace in her head. Her lips can’t keep up. She is knowledgeable on Jewish law, visited Israel on a birthright trip and plans to marry a Jewish man named Gilad. She is impassioned, preferring her Jewish name instead of Diana. You can’t help but wonder while watching her verbal sparring how much of that is rooted in anxiety. The only ones on their toes for every insult thrown their way are the ones who live expecting it.  

The first words Daphna says are an insult to her cousin Jonah and she takes digs at Jonah’s brother, Liam, who was unable to attend the funeral, mocking him in a voice younger siblings in the audience will quickly recognize - the shrillness of adolescent exasperation. Daphna is surreptitiously laying the ground work to claim her Poppy’s chai, with recollection of memories that paint Liam as the complete antithesis to Poppy, and by extension herself.  

Though nuance is at times lost in Pino’s take on Liam, there is an undeniable spirit to his performance especially when opposite Johnson’s Melody, who’s characterization elicits multiple facets to Liam’s personality beyond the shouting.  

Liam is culturally aware, just not particularly interested in his own background. He’s earning his Ph.D. in Asian Studies and dating, as Daphna affectionately calls her after a probe into her ancestry, a Delawarian. Liam refuses to let his background dictate his life and his desires but despite the disconnect between himself and his culture, he believes he is most worthy of the chai because it is as much a story of love as it is one of survival, a love he shares with Melody. 

It isn’t lost on Liam that Daphna’s nascent cultural awakening is selective and “modified to fit [her] 21st century sensibilities.” But whatever ground Liam and Daphna initially have for their own arguments is quickly lost in the mud-slinging.  

Melody wears uggs, her favorite book is Eat, Pray, Love, and she has a tattoo of a treble cleft, yet she is a welcome reprieve from the loud tirades wrought with complication. As Liam says in response to Daphna’s accusation that Liam dates intellectually inferior women, “she’s simple, but she’s uncomplicated. She’s a song I can’t stop singing.” 

If kindness isn’t a virtue, then Melody is out of luck, but her juxtaposition against the yelling and disrespect begs the question if being a “Good Jew” equates to being a good person, or if being a “Bad Jew” equates to being a bad person? Melody is not a perfect character, she lacks tactful understanding of identity but her kindness isn’t saccharine, nor is it theoretical. She pushes those around her to be civil because the chai can mean life, tradition, or love but what good is any of it without the compassion imbued in those ideas?  

Despite Daphna and Liam voicing their claim to the chai, it is Jonah who manages to simultaneously break Jewish law, honor his grandfather, and bring stillness and reflection after an unexpected reveal. All three  felt the loss of their Poppy, most especially in the pregnant silence that follows a boisterous laughing session between the cousins reminiscing about Benihana and how Asian cuisine did not suit Jewish digestive tracts. For a moment they are not concerned with the necklace so much as heavy with remembrance for the man who wore it.

Even for those with no ties to Jewish culture, Bad Jews is a thought-provoking performance that forces audiences to reevaluate what they stand for and how the most profound truths are not shouted.  

The show is directed by Robert Coppel and production manager is Clara Lyzniak. Bad Jews runs from July 21 to August 13, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. The show runs approximately 90 minutes without an intermission. Adult language is used. 

Tickets are $30 for adults, and $25 for students, seniors, and military personnel. Tickets for Theatre League members with I.D. are $20. Tickets may be purchased in advance at www.mainstreetplayers.com or at the door 60 minutes prior to showtime.

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