Theatre Review: ‘Bad Jews’ at Actor’s Express

Bad JewsBy Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Actor’s Express is presenting Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” a play he developed at the Express after he won a fellowship from the National New Play Network in 2010, after graduating from Carnegie Mellon. It is directed by Freddie Ashley and will run through Feb. 22.

It’s become quite a success story: productions at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, London, and is now one of the most produced plays in the country.

Incidentally, word is that “Bad Jews” is already one of the fastest selling plays in Actor’s Express’ history; if you’re interested, I wouldn’t delay in getting tickets.

Sophocles taught us 2,400 years ago in “Oedipus” that for tragedy and intense conflict one must focus on the family. Harmon has done that in his “dramedy,” we’ll call it, of three young New York Jewish relatives who have recently lost their grandfather. The deceased had in his possession a cherished memento, a gold ornament called a “chai” in Hebrew. He even managed to hide it under his tongue while he was in a Nazi concentration camp, bequeathing the heirloom with intense emotional value.

Cut to a pleasant West Side studio apartment in New York. It belongs to Liam (Wyatt Fenner) and his younger brother Jonah (Louis Gregory); actually, the apartment has been purchased as a sort of crash pad for them by their wealthy parents who live in the same building. Their cousin Daphna (Galen Crawley) is visiting. The grandfather’s funeral has just occurred, and Liam missed it because he was skiing in Aspen while “Poppy” was on his deathbed.

This gives Daphna still more ammunition for what she wants: her grandfather’s chai, the ornament. We shortly learn that she and Liam have a simmering, ongoing feud; and they both enlist the aid of Jonah, who seems curiously detached from the matter. But appearances can be deceiving.

One more thing: Liam has brought his new Gentile (shiksa) girlfriend Melody (Rachel DeJulio), whom he says he wants to marry. This is the last straw for Daphna. She feels she is the only “good Jew” of the relatives; she’s devout, observant, is planning a two year sojourn in Israel—the works. Therefore she feels the ornament is hers by right. Liam, “bad Jew” he may be (and has called himself), does not concur. And when Daphna learns that the chai has been surreptitiously (she would say) bequeathed to Liam, she pretty much becomes the castrating Zionist, as Woody Allen called his mother in “Annie Hall.”

But Liam is no Milquetoast. In fact, he sort of implodes and explodes at the same time, placing demands on the actor (Mr. Fenner) that are extraordinary. One is tempted to say he’s over the top—but then, so is Liam. Meanwhile Daphna’s full-blown rage is akin to Krakatoa exploding. Both actors are talented and quite dazzling here, playing near the top of their emotional range; but I think perhaps it’s helpful to remember that the essence of anger can also be very quiet.

Perhaps that’s what Jonah is exhibiting, not just a curious passivity. I think all three are acting out their anger in varying ways; and let’s not forget that the ghosts of the Holocaust are close to them: Their grandfather was a victim. And though Melody seems caught in the middle of a firestorm, we learn near the end that she has more spunk than we may have thought. In fact, Ms. DeJulio and Mr. Gregory deliver quietly subtle performances; it becomes easy to overlook them placed beside the warring Liam and Daphne. Mr. Ashley once again keeps the Express on the cutting edge.

Let’s be clear: “Bad Jews” is provocative and quite excoriating at times. It is one heck of a 95 minute ride (no intermission). It will generate controversy; it’s powerful theatre.

For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.

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