By Ruth Ross
The death of a beloved relative and the distribution of his or her possessions can wreak havoc on familial relationships, causing ruptures that often fester for decades. The havoc is exacerbated when the possessions include historical artifacts, especially those related to the Holocaust.
If the thought of such squabbling makes you uncomfortable, brace yourself for the antics onstage in George Street Playhouse’s current offering, Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon. Originally produced at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, the play’s title has a double meaning. On one hand, the characters rate their “Jewishness” relative to their investment in and familiarity with the culture and religion; on the other hand, over the course of 90 minutes, we get to witness some very bad behavior in all its awful glory.
The source of contention among the three Haber-Feygenbaum cousins, brothers Liam and Jonah and cousin Daphna, is the gold chai (the Hebrew letters for “life”) necklace worn by “Poppy,” their very recently deceased grandfather for much of his long life. Daphna believes she should get it because she, after all, she the “best” Jew of the three, changing her name from Diana to the Hebrew Daphna, spending time in Israel with plans to wed a man she met there, and able to read and recite the Hebrew prayers. She’s adamant and girded for war. Her nemesis Liam (Hebrew name Shlomo, which he doesn’t care to divulge) is the oldest of the three; he wants the chai to use it to propose to his girlfriend, just as Poppy used it to propose to their grandmother. He’s arrogant, sure that he deserves the necklace—in short, a worthy opponent for Daphna. As for Jonah, he doesn’t want to be involved. He doesn’t claim any rights to the chai and would rather remove himself from the ensuing battle. Watching all this unfold is the blonde shiksa Melody, who is as uncomfortable as we are and a bit bewildered at the verbal assault taking place. (Above: Laura Lapidus and Amos VanderPoel)
Under the taut direction of Jessica Stone (in her debut at GSP), the quartet of very talented young actors moves the action steadily, inexorably to a surprising denouement. Laura Lapidus (Daphna) and Alec Silberblatt (Liam) literally own the stage; their huge personas spill over into the playhouse auditorium, and their quivering outrage makes the rafters shake. They are worthy opponents: Lapidus, perfect as the loud, judgmental, opinionated, motor-mouth, “poorer” middle cousin; Silberblatt as the entitled, narcissistic, equally obnoxious scion of the extended family, who steamrolls the others, especially his younger brother. He is a bundle of nerves from the moment he enters the swanky Upper West Side studio apartment (designed by Charlie Corcoran) that serves as the battlefield. Albeit filled with two air mattresses and a pull-out sofa, it is precisely the type of pad purchased by millionaire parents for their offspring (It’s down the hass from the Habers). (Above: Lapidus, Alec Silberblatt and Maddie Jo Landers)
But don’t sell the two quieter characters short. Amos VanderPoel (right, with Silberblatt) portrays Jonah as a schlub of the first order, his mumbling discomfort palpable as he tries to avoid being drawn into the whirlwind around him. Physically, he looks as though he’d rather be anywhere else but here, often shrinking into a corner or lurking near the door to the hallway as though he’d like to escape. As Melody, collateral damage in this brawl, Maddie Jo Landers’ cluelessness is rather endearing. Wide-eyed, spilling personal details (unwittingly giving Daphna ammo to use against Liam), naive, her character is clearly out of her element; her exchange with Daphna over her ethnic origins is a tour de force of naiveté vs. wily snarkiness. And when called upon to sing something “operatic to” calm Daphna, her failure may be epic (think Florence Foster Jenkins), but our sympathy for her increases with each note!
Lest you think Bad Jews is one long, relentless rant, there are some funny and tender moments when the cousins reveal their love for each other and their family. They know so well the story of the chai’s survival through Poppy’s internment in Auschwitz that they can finish each others’ sentences. And recalling a disastrous family dinner at Mt. Fuji Restaurant sends the three into uncontrollable gales of laughter accompanied by lots of rolling on the floor in glee, as Melody looks on, mystified (above).
Production values are, once again, top notch. Sarah Laux has appropriately dressed the actors as typical twenty-somethings; J. Jared Janas’ wig and hair design strikes the right note between the two women. Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting conveys the passage of time, and Drew Levy’s use of music fittingly takes us from Hassidic nigun at the beginning to a more contemporary Israeli song at the end. Gerardo Rodriguez is to be commended on his fight direction; the physical altercation in the penultimate scene looks real—and vicious.
Good Jew? Super Jew? Uber Jew or Bad Jew—which cousin fills the bill? To be sure, there’s a plethora of bad behavior in Bad Jews, but notice, the title is plural, so the verdict is not clear-cut. Just trying to figure out who’s who will make your head spin, but the ending (no spoiler) will hit you in the gut and leave you thinking (and talking) as you leave the theater. With their interplay of comedy and tragedy, family interactions offer fresh meat for playwrights looking to entertain us—even as they provoke us to think. Joshua Harmon and the folks at George Street Playhouse have cooked up a splendid dish in Bad Jews. Now, come; eat a little. You won’t go away hungry.
Bad Jews will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through April 9. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.246.7717 or visit www.GSPonline.com
Photos by T. Charles Erickson.