25 November 2014

'Bad Jews'

I was visiting my mother in Maryland again and I caught a matinee performance of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews at Washington’s Studio Theatre on Sunday, 16 November.  The 90-minute one-act, under the direction of Serge Seiden, Studio’s producing director, is presented in the 218-seat Mead Theatre, the largest of Studio’s three spaces; it began performances on 5 November and is scheduled to close on 21 December.  

The première of Bad Jews was directed by Daniel Aukin at New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company in October 2013.  (I’ve reported on two previous productions staged by Aukin: Sam Shepard’s Heartless at New York’s Signature Theatre Company, posted 10 September 2012, and the Atlantic Theater Company’s What Rhymes With America by Melissa James Gibson, 3 January 2013.)  Roundabout’s sold-out run of Bad Jews garnered nominations for the 2012-2013 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play, the 2014 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, and the 2014 Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Play; Harmon was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Award.  This was Harmon’s first major professional production, and it turned the young writer into a phenom.  The U.K. première was staged by the Ustinov Studio at the Theatre Royal in Bath in August 2014, and that production will transfer to London’s St. James Theatre next January.  Regional and local premières have been staged in San Francisco (Magic Theatre, September 2014); Columbus, Ohio (Gallery Players, September 2014); Philadelphia (Walnut Street Theatre, October 2014); Boston (SpeakEasy Stage Company, October 2014); Kansas City, Missouri (Unicorn Theatre, October 2014); and Coral Gables, Florida (GableStage, November 2014).  Productions are also scheduled in New Haven, Connecticut (Long Wharf Theatre, February 2015); Houston (Black Lab Theatre, April 2015); Chicago (Theater Wit , April 2015); and Los Angeles (Geffen Playhouse, June 2015).  The text of Bad Jews was published by Smith & Kraus Publishers in December 2012. 

Joshua Harmon, 31, is a recent graduate of Juilliard’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program.  (Bad Jews got him accepted after two previously unsuccessful applications.)  Born in Manhattan into a conservative Jewish household, Harmon grew up in New York City’s Westchester County suburbs after a “formative” year living in Brooklyn.  He wrote poems and short stories in middle and high school that were frequently published in school magazines.  After graduating from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, with a BFA in drama, Harmon returned to New York and worked as a film and theater assistant for several years before attending Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for an MFA in playwriting.  In December 2010, Harmon went to the renowned MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he wrote the first 30 pages of Bad Jews.  In 2010, the incipient dramatist won a year-long fellowship from the National New Play Network to be a playwright-in-residence at the Actor’s Express and moved to Atlanta, where Bad Jews had a workshop.  Following the début in March in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Ernst C. Stiefel Reading Series of Harmon’s next play, The Franco-Prussian War, a romantic comedy “about a [gay] guy and his three best girlfriends, and the girlfriends are all getting married,” the playwright is now working on commissions from the Roundabout and the Lincoln Center Theatre Company.  

Bad Jews, a caustically humorous domestic drama about Jewish identity in the modern world, centers on an emotional battle among three cousins.  A “bad Jew” is what Jews call themselves or co-religionists when they contravene traditional Jewish behavior such as not keeping a kosher kitchen or working on the Sabbath (or, as Harmon relates in the script, eating cookies on Pesach); one reviewer described his idea of a bad Jew as “someone outside of the Klinghoffer family who tried to shut down John Adams’ ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’” at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in October.  The setting for Bad Jews is a cramped New York City studio apartment on the Upper West Side where the three young Jews—Daphna Feygenbaum (Irene Sofia Lucio) and brothers Liam (Alex Mandell) and Jonah Haber (Joe Paulik)—have gathered to sit shiva for their grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor; Daphna’s aunt and uncle bought the apartment (down the hall from theirs) for Jonah.  Daphna (formerly known as Diana), a brainy Vassar senior, and Liam, a University of Chicago postgraduate, are less kissing cousins than bitter antagonists; “They are their own worst enemies,” says Harmon.  For Daphna, who wears her religion on her sleeve, her Judaism links her to a tradition stretching back five thousand years.  Liam, the ultimate assimilated Jew, is a self-proclaimed “Bad Jew” who missed Poppy’s funeral because he lost his cell phone while off skiing in Aspen with Melody (Maggie Erwin), his gentile girlfriend.  He’s skeptical about religion and is pointedly devoting himself to the study of Japanese culture.  (His previous girlfriend was a Japanese-American, as Daphna insists on pointing out.)  Not only that, but he has brought Melody, the “American” girl, with him to the family gathering.  Jonah, in contrast (and probably by consequence), is so detached that he doesn’t want to enter Daphna and Liam’s “ugly, unvarnished, and hilarious” battle over “family, faith, and identity politics.”  

The resulting clash is the center of the play, a confrontation over possession of their grandfather’s cherished gold Chai, a symbol of life (chai is the Hebrew word for ‘life,’ spelled with two Hebrew letters that are often worn as a pendant) that Poppy had worn ever since he left the concentration camp.  He’d hidden the Chai under his tongue during his time in the camp and when he came to America, too poor to buy a ring, he proposed to his wife with it.  Daphna feels the amulet’s rightfully hers because she’s the only “real” Jew among the grandchildren, the sole “True Believer” of the three.  She discovers, however, that Liam’s already taken the pendant on the claim that he’s the oldest male grandchild.  (Chais are customarily worn by men, though that’s not a rule.)  Daphna becomes frantic with grief, anger, and bitterness, demanding the Chai from Liam, who, of course, isn’t going to give it to her.  (He’d planned to use it himself to propose to Melody in Aspen.)  Under the gaze of Melody and the noncommittal Jonah, Daphna and Liam attack each other, raising significant questions about what it means to be Jews today. 

Bad Jews was inspired when Harmon was a college sophomore after he attended a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) service in which grandchildren of Holocaust survivors were invited to speak.  I found it really unmoving.  I think there’s just something that happens when you’re an eyewitness to something that imbues you the power to tell that story . . . .  So to hear the story from someone who wasn’t there.  It just didn’t carry the same kind of weight, and it scared me.”  Further, Harmon realized “that in my lifetime the people who were actual eyewitnesses to the events of the Holocaust were going to be gone.”  The playwright continues, “A year or so later I came up with the title Bad Jews and started taking notes about the characters during my senior year, but then I put that notebook away for many years.”  He was 21 then, and in December 2010, he found himself at the MacDowell Colony.  After abandoning a script about “gay bullies and whales” (go know, right?), he looked around for a more likely project.  Bad Jews, Harmon explains, had been hanging around on his “Plays I Want to Write Before I Die” list for six years by then, so he pulled it out, wrote the first 30 pages at MacDowell, and completed the first draft in April 2011.  

Harmon fully expected to have problems over the title—his grandmother even asked him to change it—and some critics and spectators have complained.  So when the producer of the Roundabout series in which Bad Jews was to be presented called him, he assumed it was about the title.  I sorta instinctively knew it was the right title,” he recalled, “but I had no intellectual justification for it . . . .”  Not to worry, though: Robyn Goodman, that Roundabout producer, loved the title.  (One of my companions at the Studio performance said, however, that she has a friend who won’t see the play because of the title.  Contrarily, a friend to whom I recently described the play remarked, “It’s a catchy title, that’s for sure.”)  A question could be (and, in my reading, has been) asked, however, why Harmon makes his title plural when only Liam professes himself a bad Jew.  I think Harmon’s saying that all of the cousins, in their own ways, are a kind of bad Jew, even (or maybe especially) fruma Daphna with her recriminations, scolding, and bad-mouthing of anyone who disagrees with her.  Even Jonah, the middle-of-the-roader, is a bad Jew because he won’t take sides and make a stand.  (Only goyishe Melody is exempt.)

The first time Harmon says he heard his “very strange little Jewish play” read was around his family’s dinner table the night he returned to New York City from Atlanta.  Near the end of dinner,” Harmon recounts, “my Dad asked, ‘So, is this play any good?’ and . . . I reached into my backpack, pulled out the copy I'd printed and said, ‘I don't know, Dad.  You tell me.’  And somehow, my lawyer-father and psychology-grad-student-sister morphed into actors, and we began to read.”  (Harmon’s very clear that none of his fictional characters are based on members of his family.  However, “I see a lot of me in it, all over the place.”)

Though he admits his play “comes from a very personal place,” Harmon won’t elucidate on what he thinks Bad Jews is about.  My job as the writer,” he insists, “is to tell a story and then get out of its way.  What resonates with the audience is for them to discover for themselves, not for me to dictate.”  He asserts that he did no research for Bad Jews: he “just lived my life and thought about the world around me and the world I know and then I wrote about it.”  (In his conversation with the dramaturg at the Roundabout, Harmon invoked such writers as Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Wendy Wasserstein—his “favorite” playwright, he says—and Alfred Uhry, whom he sees as “heroes.”  He also cops to admiring Kenneth Lonergan, David Lindsay-Abaire, Annie Baker, “and many others” like William Inge and Stephen Karam.)  He decided that the play should take place in one room over an hour-and-a-half in real time in order to “let the audience feel like they’ve really gone on some kind of journey, without any tricks or magic or scene changes.  Just, come sit in this living room and watch what happens.” 

Since this is Harmon’s first produced play (his second one, The Franco-Prussian War, hasn’t even been staged beyond a reading yet), it bears some of the marks of a tyro playwright.  On the other hand, because Harmon’s into his 30’s now, his ideas reveal a maturity of mind that contends with some substantive ideas to which younger writers might not aspire at the equivalent stage in their careers.  In my view, the latter asset outweighs the former deficit, at least for Bad Jews.  This was an engaging performance of a provocative play, and Harmon was even able to use the Jewish elements of his plot and characters to outline a universal issue that must plague members—especially family members—of many other cultural, ethnic, or religious groups.  (In fact, as I think about it, Richard Nelson’s politically liberal Apples, the population of That Hopey Changey Thing—which I also saw at the Studio and on which I reported on 15 December 2013—and the other three Apple Family Plays, could be seen to negotiate a parallel dynamic.)  

Harmon’s play isn’t just about “Super Jew Daphna” versus “Nonbeliever Liam”  It’s also a family dramedy depicting a somewhat contrived dysfunctional extended family.  (Beyond the three youngsters, we learn second-hand about their parents’ issues and a few details about Poppy’s marriage as well.)  Daphna isn’t just hyper-religious, for instance, she’s obsessed with differences in wealth (her cousins’ family is richer than hers) and she’s something of an erotomaniac (her Israeli boyfriend probably doesn’t really exist).  Liam isn’t just an apostate Jew, but he’s wound so tight he’s likely to burst at any moment.  Further, as the Studio’s casting notice put it: he “[h]as as much of a sense of humor as an overdue library book.”  

Jonah isn’t just noncommittal or detached, he’s a dishrag, a doormat for his two stronger-willed peers.  That Backstage casting notice described him as “[s]ensitive,” with “[m]ore heart,” than his brother, adding that he “[d]oesn’t always speak up but when he does, it makes a strong impact.”  And poor Melody, the fish-out-of-water shiksa plunked down in the battle-royal among a family of millennial Jews: she’s also clueless and a little self-deluded (wait till you hear this “trained opera singer” try to belt “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess!  You’ll plotz.)  She’s not the blond bimbo she’s painted to be and Daphna wants her to be, however; she may be the closest thing to a grown-up in the room.  One local reviewer noted that Harmon “imbue[d] her with a surprisingly steely spine and an empathetic streak the others largely lack.”  So, Harmon has loaded the deck a little, to enhance the dramatic (or, maybe I should say, melodramatic) possibilities of Bad Jews.  

The trade-off, as I said, is that what Harmon’s writing about is more meaty and evocative than a 90-minute play about squabbling Jewish twenty-somethings probably ought to be.  Almost every reviewer, interviewer of Harmon, and director/artistic director/dramaturg of a theater that presented Bad Jews said the play is about what it means to be Jewish in contemporary America.  And it is—this is a debate that’s current not just here, but in Israel and around the Jewish diaspora, and it’s important—but it’s also a debate, with some shifts in diction, that almost certainly goes on in African-American households, gay communities, Italian-American homes, even Catholic groups, and so on.  I’d bet that Muslims in the U.S., Holland, Germany, France, or the U.K. are having a version of this debate right now, possibly just as heatedly.  (In one viewer comment on line, someone of Cuban background wondered, “[H]ow do I ensure my children are familiar with Cuban culture, especially if I marry a man who is not Cuban himself?”  Similar considerations were voiced by spectators of Nigerian, Korean, and Philippine heritage.)  Some of them feel strongly, like Daphna, that their identification with the group, the religion, the national homeland, the old-world roots, the family history, is vital to their identity, even the identity of the whole clan.  Others are assimilated and see their roots as a quaint residue of where their forbears stood before they became “American.”  Melody says her family has “always been from Delaware,” which incenses Daphna—but it’s the way a lot of Americans of every stripe and origin feel.  Mosaic or melting pot, we’re all “Americans” now—or we should be.  As Melody observes in the play, “People are just people.” She even points out that John Lennon said it: 

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace . . .

Harmon also has a wicked, slightly bent sense of humor—which makes the acrimonious flagellation, the flaying Daphna and Liam inflict on one another, bearable and, in a way, more effective.  He makes what ought to be either an unrelentingly brutal slugfest—or scalpel fight—or an over-the-top one-theme shouting contest into a thought-provoking and digestible argument enlivened by some outrageous one-liners and biting repartee.  (This part, especially, is significantly aided by the excellent cast.)  Without Harmon’s stinging humor, Bad Jews would be unendurable—sort of like a whole concert of Melody’s execrable singing.  

It’s inadvisable to make a judgment of a writer’s appeal, even a subjective one, on the basis of a single play, especially the playwright’s first.  So I won’t.  I will say that I’ll be watching for Harmon’s future stage work and I’ll put him on my list of writers whose work intrigues me, at least until I learn otherwise.  Unlike, say, Amy Herzog, whose Belleville was the last play I saw at the Studio (see my report on 11 October), I’m not ready to strike Harmon from future consideration.  There’s an interesting enough spark there, something that makes him stand out from other new theater writers.  If that continues and develops beyond Bad Jews (admittedly a somewhat parochial set-up for a Jewish playwright), I say Harmon’ll be someone to keep in sight.

Serge Seiden’s staging of the play is, as I suggested, part of the reason Bad Jews works so well.  Starting with his casting, this director has not only caught the spirit of the play and Harmon’s dramaturgy—which are not necessarily the same thing—but has put it into practical production with economy and restraint.  Confined not only by the 90-minute, real-time span of the episode but also the one-room apartment which makes the play work something like a cage fight, Seiden directed Bad Jews tightly and tautly, keeping the action controlled and the actors both on edge and on pitch.  I detected what looked like they might have been moments in the script that could have become artificial and brittle or precious (depending on the prevailing sentiment), but the cast managed to skirt those pitfalls and make the behavior of these four high-strung people just believably eccentric (rather than entirely contrived).  

We hear (via Daphna) that the Habers, who bought (and presumably furnished) Jonah’s studio apartment, are wealthy, but director Seiden and designer Luciana Stecconi have devised a set that is far from luxurious.  We hear (again from Daphna) that there’s a view of the Hudson from the bathroom, but we don’t see that.  The studio is small and sparsely furnished with the most basic and plainest pieces— essentially one fold-out sofa and a couple of mattresses on the floor—and the fridge is empty until Daphna fills it with bottled water.  So I have to wonder if Daphna’s jealousy over her cousins’ financial status is excessive, or if the Habers aren’t as generous with their offspring as their cousin imagines.  Is it part of her delusion or obsession?  Stecconi’s design adds to the impact of Harmon’s play and Seiden’s production.

Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lights were suitably bright, as if to suggest a spotlight on the issues on display, but Kelsey Hunt’s costumes, though simple and straightforward for the most part, were very telling.  Liam’s jeans-and-open-shirt and his brother Jonah’s non-descript slacks (he’s in “boxers and black socks” when the light come up, which prompts one of Daphna’s early jibes) are pretty simple character statements—sort of “Every-collegian,” but Daphna’s outfits, which she changes from time to time, seem to evoke the sort of “Earth-mother” I think she envisions herself, unflattering and comfortable, the pants-and-blouse equivalent of a muu-muu.  Meldody’s snow-bunny outfit, down to the pink anorak and snow-white (and hard-cased) wheely suitcase she brings with her, just sort of say non-ethnic American (a characterization Daphna verbalizes).  (Don’t ask me to explain that, because I can’t.)  She also wears boots with a short skirt, a look that always says to me “little girl” (or post-adolescent little-girl wannabe), especially when paired with long, straight (and, in this case, blond) hair (held back with a pink, plastic, bow-shaped barrette).  Melody’s picture illustrates the Yiddish encyclopedia entry for shiksa!  The theatrical point, of course, is that Melody (and the name only enhances all this) isn’t all that.  So Hunt’s contrived a false identity for the character so Harmon (and actress Maggie Erwin) can pierce it for us.  

The four-actor ensemble works together marvelously.  (This is a hallmark of the Studio performances I’ve seen—the casts, as guided by their directors, seem especially adept at ensemble-building, an attribute by which I put great store.)  As I hinted, the cast works with Seiden to excellent effect to keep the script from deteriorating into an unrelieved shouting match by making sure their characters remain credible (if single-minded) human beings, handling the bitter humor with which Harmon provides them with, if not exactly restraint then control.  The additional traits with which the playwright endowed the characters— Daphna’s social obsessions and romantic fantasy, Liam’s high-strung nature, and so on—could easily spin off into absurdities, but all of the actors play them as integral elements of their characters’ personas which dovetail with the main characteristics (Daphna’s fanatic Jewishness, Liam’s adamant irreligiosity).  The hardest work has to be done by Lucio and Mandell, but all four actors carefully integrate their characters.

Jonah Haber is less fully drawn than brother Liam, but Joe Paulik nonetheless has the task of keeping the character from slipping into caricature, the wishy-washy nebbish.  Jonah’s not, and Paulik walks the line surely enough to make sure we see that.  (In a sense, Jonah is the audience’s surrogate on stage, and Paulik gives him enough intestinal fortitude to stand in stalwartly for us.)  He’s fed up with being in the middle of the epic warfare that’s clearly always fought out whenever Daphna appears on the scene (even when Liam’s not there to set her off).  Pushed too far, he can explode, too—to protect his noninvolvement: I said I didn’t want to get in the middle of it so don’t put me there,” Paulik spits out at one point.  This isn’t his battle, he’s not so much neutral as disinterested.  (Jonah, I noticed, is the only character with a traditional Old Testament—that is, “Jewish”—name, and we learn in the end that Poppy meant something special to him, too, which he shows in a unique, very personal, and disturbing way.)  Paulik shows us that he doesn’t want to antagonize either party by the way he appears to agree with one or the other combatant—without actually lining up with either one—but when forced to engage, Paulik lets loose with a will that can seem surprising but demonstrates he has a spine when he needs one.  Irene Sofia Lucio’s Daphna, on the other hand, is unrelenting: she never lightens up on anyone, whether she or he asks for it (Liam) or not (Melody).  Lucio never lets up, either, playing the role on a level of energy that seems to derive from near-pure adrenaline.  (In a longer play, I wonder if Lucio—or any actor—could sustain that level of performance.  It must be exhausting for her; it was for me.)  

As Liam, Alex Mandell looks like the classic nerd, with his Edward Snowden glasses and unhip haircut, but he’s passionate about his desire to assimilate and just be an American, not a Jewish American.  (He also seems genuinely to be in love with Melody, not just see her as some goyishe trophy.)  The way Mandell plays the role, it’s evident that Liam’s antagonism for Daphna is both knee-jerk—she has but to open her mouth and he’s off like a shot—and deeply felt.  I can understand his position on religion, but what Mandell demonstrates in his treatment of not just Liam’s cousin but his brother as well is that he can barely tolerate anyone who doesn’t.  Like Daphna, Liam is in danger of being a one-note role, but Mandell manages to find a few sharps and flats to keep the character from going over completely to a monotone.  His “American” girl, Melody, like Jonah, is underwritten, but Maggie Erwin, finds a few wrinkles to make her more interesting than she might otherwise be.  Foremost, she’s sweet—and it comes through as genuine niceness (just as Liam insists), not a kind of dumb-blond obliviousness.  Okay, Melody doesn’t really get that no family can always have been in Delaware—and when she says it doesn’t matter that Daphna’s Jewish, it sounds an awful lot like ‘Some of my best friends are . . . .’  But Erwin makes it clear that she truly doesn’t see people that way: “I really don’t see why any of it matters, you know?  Where people come from?  And then she essentially takes charge in the room.  At first, demanding that Daphna get to ask her question about Poppy’s Chai, Melody doesn’t know—but we do—that it’ll lead to an explosion and give away Liam’s intention to propose.  But first Erwin makes clear that the impulse comes from an honest place, and then she turns the resulting uproar into a moment of genuine personal triumph that momentarily outweighs the parochial pettiness of Daphna and Liam.  It’s Erwin’s total sincerity that sells this and makes it seem less contrived than it might have been in other hands.  

In the Washington-area press, Bad Jews got glowing reviews, all of them warning, however, that the ride will be . . . well, bumpy, to borrow a thought from All About Eve.  In the Washington Post, Peter Marks led with, “Just as you’re advised to stand back from an electrified third rail, you might want to maintain a safe distance from Daphna and Liam, the hazardous kibitzing cousins of Joshua Harmon’s devastatingly, acidly funny ‘Bad Jews.’”  He characterized the play as “brutal, hilarious, quicksilver” and declared that it has been “directed with a maestro’s keen powers of perception by Serge Seiden.”  “‘Bad Jews’ is,” Marks assured his readers, “for lovers of dramatic organisms truly alive on a stage, great fun: red-meat theater, marinated in fearlessness.”  With praise for the acting all around, the Postman almost lamented, “Like a sudden hailstorm, the play unleashes its ferocious energy and is gone.”  Of Harmon’s “blistering 2013 comedy,” Andrew Lapin of Washington City Paper said it’s “blunt and precise in equal measure,” and  “gleefully poses big and small questions about Jewish identity.”  Lapin’s one complaint (with which I don’t entirely agree—I think he’s making inappropriate demands) was, “The play probes but remains shul-appropriate.”  “There were moments . . . when the Studio audience . . . clapped while the work wanted them to squirm,” the CP reviewer felt.  “Something this raw shouldn’t go over like Fiddler” (a production of which is currently playing at the Arena Stage here).  “[F]or an evening of high drama and cutting comedy,” declared Washington Jewish Week’s Lisa Traiger, Harmon’s “volatile play” is “not to be missed.”  Said the WJW review-writer, “[T]his is comedy with the knives unsheathed,” especially for Jews, but for non-Jews, the play “still provides a remarkable amount of frisson, enough to make anyone with a family breathe a sigh that theirs isn’t quite that highly strung.”  The cast, “directed with a chef’s knife-edged accuracy,” Traiger reported, “has fully committed themselves to” the demands of the script.  In conclusion, Traiger asserted, “What works best here is the high-strung comedy intermingled with the seething undertones of jealousy, greed, pride and honor” we all recognize.  

A “must-see for everyone” is what Heather Hill called the Studio’s Bad Jews on MD Theatre Guide, reporting that it’s an “outrageously funny production [that] transcends race and religion.”  It’s “a seethingly witty commentary on the people we try to be versus the ways our identities are etched upon us,” said Hill, with praise for the four actors and the production staff both.  In perhaps the most personally effusive acclaim for the show, DC Metro Theatre Arts’ John Stoltenberg wrote, “Bad Jews is so over-the-top funny, so razor-sharp smart, and so plumb-the-depths profound that it left me gobsmacked in utter awe.”  Going on to call the play “a perfectly polished gem” and a “gift of exceptional theater” which “Serge Seiden directs with hilarious panache,” the DCMTA reviewer concluded that the play’s “a powerfully engaging experience.”  Pronouncing playwright Harmon “a young writer of uncommon emotional insight, rhetorical skill and giant brass balls,” Ryan Taylor wrote on DC Theatre Scene that he “has crafted the funniest American comedy of bad manners I’ve had the pleasure of falling in love with in a good few years.”  Though “[g]enerally thin on plot but huge on incident,” reported Taylor, the pay’s “thrilling stuff that barely ever pauses to catch its breath.”  Of the humor, the DCTS review-writer admonished us that “it’s not empty comedy.  It’s rich, and thoughtful and wonderfully challenging and so in love with big questions.  But,” Taylor urged, “don’t take my word for it.  Buy a ticket, prepare a questioning mind and investigate for yourself.”  Can you think of higher praise from a theater writer—an unabashedly positive recommendation?

The New York cyber press got into the act as well.  On CurtainUp, Susan Davidson started off bluntly: “Bad Jews is a good play.”  The “cacophonous quartet of perfectly cast actors” is directed, Davidson wrote, “with great intelligence and humor.”  Like DCTS’s Taylor, the CU reviewer ended with a recommendation: “Listen to me: it’s a terrific show and you should see it.”  Talkin’ Broadway’s Susan Berlin called Bad Jews a “riotous play” presented by the Studio in “a resplendent production.”  On Broadway World: Washington, DC, Alan Katz asserted that the reason to see Bad Jews is the confrontation between Daphna and Liam, “one of the most vitriolic confrontation[s] I've ever seen between two characters onstage.”  Katz saw a problem with this in “that it creates a one-note tone that can wear on the audience, aggravated by the conflict's expression mostly via monologue rather than true dialogue” (one of the few real complaints about the play that I read), although the cyber reviewer added that this situation allows “the leads [to] really shine.”  “Bitingly funny” is how TheaterMania’s Barbara Mackay described Bad Jews, but she went on to issue the harshest criticism of the show: “Given the way Harmon has written the play and Serge Seiden has directed it, Bad Jews veers precipitously away from a realistic analysis of faith and demonstrations of belief and toward an irrational demonstration of pure hate—an intense boxing match between cousins steeped in self-interest and greed.”  In production, though, “Seiden has wound up his actors into a tight, well-coordinated ensemble.” 

I’d guess that Bad Jews isn’t going to be every theatergoer’s cup of tea (or glezel tai).  There’s little doubt that it’s a disturbing play, one that makes spectators uneasy—but most of that’s because it makes you think and feel about ideas that aren’t easily dealt with or resolved.  (In fact, Harmon’s characters don’t resolve their argument.)  Bad Jews will discomfit some Jews who have problems with anything critical of Judaism and Jews.  (One reviewer even asked, “Is Bad Jews good or bad for the Jews?” a question not unheard in Jewish society.)  It’ll also put off gentiles who can’t translate the central point into a universally applicable debate about assimilation and loyalty to traditions because of all the Jewishness in Harmon’s text.  (I can remember someone reporting that when Fiddler on the Roof first played in Tokyo back in 1967, audiences embraced it because “it’s so Japanese”!  It became the longest-running musical ever to play in Tokyo.)  But if you don’t fall into either of those categories, I think the near-unanimity of the reviews will suggest that this is a play to see (it’s purportedly one of the three most-produced plays in the U.S. this season), and that Harmon’s a playwright to watch.  

[The musical classic Fiddler on the Roof is mentioned a few times in my report, perhaps a natural connection in an article about a Jewish-themed play.  But as several of the reviewers noted, right now in Washington, there’s a trifecta of Jewish plays on the boards.  Fiddler, marking its 50th anniversary this year, is in production at the venerable Arena Stage (until 4 January 2015), and Theatre J, at home at the DC Jewish Community Center, is presenting Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures through 21 December.  (I reported on the New York production of Kushner’s play, in which the characters are actually not Jewish, on ROT on 6 June 2011.)  One theater writer noted that with Bad Jews, this represents three generations of Jewish theater on Capital-area stages: Fiddler for “the bubbies and zadies” (by which the writer meant zaydas, for grandmas and grandpas), the Kushner for the Boomers, and Bad Jews for the millennials.

[A word or two about the Chai.  Like the other symbols Jews wear as a sign of their faith or culture, the Chai is not a religious object.  It’s not, for instance, the equivalent of the Christian cross many of those believers wear around their necks.  Jews who wear a Chai (or a mezuzah, Mogen David, or tablets of the Ten Commandments) are displaying a cultural object, not a sacred one.  In fact, Judaism has no comparable symbol to the Christian cross.  The closest there is is the oldest symbolic representation of Judaism, the seven-branched candelabrum, or menorah, used in the Temple that is also the symbol of the modern city of Jerusalem.  (The seats in the Israeli Knesset are arranged in the shape of the menorah.  The eight- or nine-branched candelabrum used at Chanukah, by the way, is properly called a chanukiah or, simply, a Chanukah menorah.  The menorah is a religious object.)  Poppy’s Chai has significance for Daphna, Liam, and Jonah because of its family connections and historical importance, not its spiritual meaning.

[The mezuzah, for those who don’t already know, is a sacred object, but not the little gold or silver ones some Jews wear as jewelry.  Mezuzot, which are actually little cases for Torah verses, are traditionally fixed to the doorframes of Jewish homes as a blessing for the house, the family living there, and anyone who enters.  Wearing one around the neck has no actual religious meaning.  Mogen Davids are a relatively modern symbol of Judaism, coming to popularity in the 19th century.  (The six-pointed star occurs in the iconography of many cultures, ancient and modern, and is not an exclusively Jewish symbol.)  The State of Israel adopted the Star of David as the national insignia, but it, too, has no religious significance.  The Ten Commandment tablets are even less sacred; their principal use is as the branch insignia for Jewish chaplains in the army.  (Christian chaplains wear silver crosses on their lapels; Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist military chaplains also have distinctive insignia.)

On 30 December 2015, my friend Helen Kaye sent me her review of Bad Jews from the Jerusalem Post.  I've published it below as a Comment (see 1 January 2016) so ROTters can see the contrast in our experiences of the play.]


  1. On 31 December 2014, the Washington Post reported that the Studio Theatre announced a day earlier that Joshua Harmon’s 'Bad Jews' had been extended a second time, running now through 18 January. (The show was originally scheduled to close on 21 December.) A Studio spokesman said that 15,000 tickets had been sold for 'Bad Jews' so far, making it a certified hit, and that performances were consistently selling out. 'Bad Jews' is on track to be Studio’s most popular production in at least five years.

    1. On 1 January 2015, Peter Marks, the chief theater reviewer for the Washington Post, named 'Bad Jews' as one of his "10 favorite Washington theater experiences of 2014." Marks wrote: "The funniest play of the year, set on a night of operatically pitched family battles, courtesy of a playwright, Joshua Harmon, we’re bound to hear more from."

  2. On 14 January 2015, the Washington Post reported that Studio Theatre has extended Joshua Harmon's 'Bad Jews' for a third time. The show will now run until 1 February, making it the highest-grossing show in Studio history. The announcement also includes the replacement of Maggie Erwin, who plays Melody, Liam's shiksa girlfriend, with Sarah Dabney Tisdale who takes over the role on 20 January. Erwin is moving on to a new obligation at Bethesda's Round House Theatre.


  3. In its 2015-2016 season program, the Studio Theatre has announced that Joshua Harmon's 'Bad Jews' will receive a "Special Remount" (i.e., revival) from 3 Dec. 2015-3 Jan. 2016: "Back by popular demand—in time for the holidays."


  4. On 30 December 2015, my friend Helen Kaye, who reviews theater for the Jerusalem Post, sent me her notice for a Tel Aviv production of 'Bad Jews.' I thought the contrast of the two eperiences, mine and Helen's, should go together so I'm posting her review here as a Comment. ~Rick

    * * * *

    ‘Bad Jews’
    By Joshua Harmon
    Translated by Rivka Meshulach
    Directed by Omri Nitzan
    Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv

    By Helen Kaye

    Joshua Harmon’s ‘Bad Jews’ is like a grand cru vintage red wine. You have to open the bottle and let it ‘breathe’ a while before its superlative flavor emerges. Which is to say that ‘Bad Jews’ starts slow and then Kaboom!

    To which of the three grandchildren will go Poppy’s gold ‘chai’ pendant? Its future ownership is the pulse of ‘Bad Jews’, but who and what is a Jew, is it important to ‘be’ a Jew, and/or why, is the heart of this powerful, savagely funny play. And don’t we endlessly fight those same battles here?

    Jonah Haber (Yuval Segal) is your sit-on-the-fence Jew. He doesn’t want to know from nothing. Leave him out, please. Older brother Liam Haber (Udi Rothschild) is your totally assimilated Jew whose deliberate denial of everything Jewish encompasses his gentile girl-friend Melody (Dana Meinrath). Daphna – born Diana - Feygenbaum (Ola Shur Selektar) is your born-again, in-your-face Jew who flies her Jewishness like a flag.

    The four of them come together in the brothers’ tiny Manhattan studio apartment on the day of Poppy’s funeral. There Liam and Daphna will battle for the chai, claiming that Poppy promised it to each of them.

    The chai isn’t any old pendant. It has a potent history. ‘Chai’ in Hebrew means life and for Poppy it meant survival. For the two years that he was in a concentration camp, Poppy kept the pendant under his tongue. When he proposed to Grandmother, it was with the ‘chai’. Now Liam intends it for the same purpose when he proposes to Melody.

    Even before they get to that point Liam and Daphna flay each other in a series of abusive, brilliant monologues to which Jonah and Melody are appalled witnesses, although Melody does, and very determinedly, shove in her oar a time or two. And when they do get to that point, deeds replace words to the utterly surprise ending.

    Frizzy-haired, conservatively clad Shur Selektar and the trendily barbered, casually clad Rothschild deservedly garner laughs and impassioned applause in equal measure. With every fibre of their being, they live the words they hurl at each other, the words that reveal their conflicted natures, the vulnerable underbelly of their seemingly armored personalities, their desperate need for affirmation. Individually and together theirs is a consummate performance.

    Meinrath too handles her difficult role with more than grace. She’s the outsider, the symbol, who must and does tread delicately between bewildered incomprehension and courageous assertiveness. As Jonah, Segal has little to say, but he’s completely present in every way, his body and face speaking volubly for him.

    Rivka Meshulach’s translation is magnificently crunchy and Omri Nitzan’s full-flavored (just like that vintage red), direction incorporates even the flicker of an eyelash, the quirk of a mouth.

    Bad Jews is a good, even exceptional play and its production here is Terrific – capital T please.