“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his classic novel Anna Karenina. Bad Jews, by Joshua Harmon, playing at Greenbelt Arts Center, and superbly directed by Bob Kleinberg, brings that quote to mind as it mines the sour bile spilled between three cousins in the aftermath of their grandfather’s funeral. The show is electric, its fiery verbal energy flowing into the audience—a theatrical production and performance of the highest order.
Throughout its 90 minutes, the three cousins, Liam, Daphna, and Jonah spar verbally and physically in Jonah’s Upper West Side Manhattan studio apartment, shortly after the funeral. They are crowded in the studio, we find out, because there’s no room in Liam’s parents’ apartment. A third-rail of explosiveness comes out in the “more-Jewish-than-thou” game of one-upmanship played by Daphna, a dogmatic Jew, against the secular Liam. On the surface, the problem is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody, who the self-righteous and traditional Daphna hates. (Liam and Melody had just flown in from the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado.) Daphna sees Melody as an “inferior” shiksa—shiksa being Yiddish for a non-Jewish woman, the stereotype being a blond beauty who marries a Jewish man.
The dramatic stakes shoot to the heavens when it comes out that Liam wants to propose to Melody with his grandfather’s golden Chai neckless, in lieu of an engagement ring, which he had planned to do in Aspen. (Chai, the Hebrew word for “life, and the symbol for it has been used as an amulet since the 18th Century). It turns out Liam’s grandfather, Poppy, hid the Chai under his tongue for two years while imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, making it a family heirloom with a compelling history. Daphne is completely opposed to Liam owning and proposing with the Chai. Neutral like Switzerland is Liam’s brother Jonah, who ducks for safety when the verbal bullets fly. Jonah’s refrain is: “I don’t want to get involved.”
Michaela Haber’s Daphna is a self-righteous-to-the-core witch for much of the play. Her self-righteousness is shown in her wearing her religion on her sleeve: she’s studying to be a rabbi, she’s moving to Israel to marry her Jewish boyfriend and so on. Her “witchiness” is shown by her verbal lashing of everything and everyone non-Jewish, especially Liam’s “inferior” present and past girlfriends. She even hates Melody’s treble clef (musical symbol) tattoo on her calf muscle because Jews aren’t supposed to get tattooed. Playing an “Uber Jew,” there was no delineation between actor and character here: Haber was Daphna for the play’s duration. Haber’s performance was unforgettably outstanding.
It can be hard for an actor to pull off an “epic rant” without coming off like a trite knockoff of a comic actor like a Jonah Hill or a Robin Williams; but Jason Kanow, in a long and piercing monologue, expertly traverses the peaks and valleys of Liam’s emotional rollercoaster and virtual vomiting of vitriol towards his cousin, Daphna, who one wonders how he finds the forbearance to not slap across the mouth. Kanow was superb throughout—one of the best performances I’ve seen this year.
The seemingly clueless Dutch-Irish-German-Little-Bit-Of-Everything Melody (the always excellent Sarah K. Scott) represents pure Americana in the play: her thinking is we are “all just American…people are people!” But Daphna will have none of that, practically insulting Melody to her face, ridiculing her lack of signing skills (Melody had studied opera!) and her yet-to-be-born children, saying they would be “half-Jewish, half-Delaware.” It is Melody who is somewhat the voice of reason, telling Daphna and Liam “you don’t talk to human beings” the way they talk to one another.
Marlowe Vilchez as Jonah, conveyed the classic, long-suffering nice guy that shuns conflict. While he spouted no epic rants or other such speeches, his body language and facial contortions conveyed all that needed to be said about the emotional blood bath going on in his studio apartment.
Set Designer Michael Stepowanyhas created a fantastic faux Manhattan studio apartment, which I was sure had a window in the unseen bathroom that you could “see the Hudson” River from. That’s what great set design does. The sweat equity put in by the crew is evident.
Greenbelt Arts Center’s Bad Jews is a fine argument for why theater is done—not merely to entertain, but to bring meaning and support to life.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.