Winnipeg Jewish Theatre
May 6 – May 17, 2015
Reviewed by Jane Enkin
“Bad Jews” offers laughs, entertaining and emotional performances, and some thought-provoking questions. Director Kayla Gordon strongly encourages young Jewish people, especially, to come and enjoy the show and explore the ideas.
“Bad Jews” has a great set up for a tight, tense comedy with resonance beyond the laughs. Joshua Harmon's play is an international hit, after a successful start in New York, the setting of the play. Three university student cousins are stuck together in a glamourous Riverside Drive apartment after the death of their grandfather. It's late at night, they are grieving and they carry the baggage of their childhood relationships. The conflict that becomes the focus of their tension is a treasured inheritance. Daphna and Liam each claim to be the one their Poppy chose to receive his Chai necklace, the one he inherited from their great-grandfather, the one he improbably hid through the Holocaust under his tongue. This object becomes the catalyst for some sentimental reflection and some screaming rants.
They really do scream, these cousins. Sometimes in long bellows: “Stop talking. NOW!” And entertainingly, sometimes in David Mamet style gushes and torrents of invective, information and anguish. Witnessing all the noise is Liam's extremely non-Jewish girlfriend, the delicate Melody.
All the characters are firecrackers, burning with a slow fuse whenever they are not exploding. Melody is the calmest, played slyly by the Winnipeg actor and improv comedian Andrea Del Campo, with the longest, straightest blonde hairdo imaginable. Through much of the play, she can register her reactions only through her alarmed body language or her cute little smiles and sighs. One of her funniest moments comes when she stands up to the overbearing Liam, looking him in the eye while she makes a little fist. She doesn't wave it, or push it toward his face; it's just there, just enough to signal that she plans to stand firm.
Kristian Jordan as Jonah was a bundle of nerves, keeping our sympathy throughout. Justin Otto as Liam had a challenging task, convincing us that he has some kindness and gentleness in his soul, along with the anger and arrogance he projects when triggered by Daphna.
The glorious Connie Manfredi may have initially been considered for the role of Daphna because of her radically curly, unruly dark hair. She more than earns the role, though, showing every corner of her childlike, powerful, insecure, arrogant, uncontrollably emotional character. I'm embarrassed a little to realize how much I identified with her; that impulse to teach every little bit of knowledge she has, especially. I remember how sure I was, after my summer in Israel, that I would make aliyah, which leaves me wondering whether Daphna's commitment to move to Israel will be any more lasting than mine was.
While the play explores questions of identity and family relationships, it is very much a comedy. These enemies have a very funny moment of family togetherness, rolling with laughter about a childhood story that they never actually manage to tell in a way that Melody can catch. Even though I had read them in other reviews, I still burst into startled laughter at lines such as “Don't Holocaust me!”
Some people, I've heard, find the title offensive. It works for the play. Liam and Daphna are definitely badly behaved – insulting, arrogant, foul-mouthed (the play comes with an adult-language warning), ready to use their intelligence to hurt others. Jonah might be nice, although in the company of the two cousins he so cowed it's hard to tell. Melody, the non-Jewish girlfriend, is so nice she sets your teeth on edge at times.
If being a “good Jew” is connected to observance, either in the Orthodox sense or in one of the other denominations, none of the cousins seems very committed. The secular Liam spells out his understanding in a way that Daphna, supposedly more connected to religion, cannot answer. He suggests that a purist approach to Judaism would involve all kinds of practises and beliefs that would offend her feminist, liberal values, and if a modern person would not accept the whole package, why should he support a “watered down” version of something he doesn't believe in? The nuanced response that a contemporary religious Jew would offer is not part of the dynamic of the play.
Another perspective on being a “good Jew” is explored with the question of how Jewish memory and Jewish tradition can be carried forward. Is intermarriage a threat to Judaism? For these characters, it's “bad” to marry out, and it's also “bad” to be intolerant of someone who marries for love, no matter their background. Is simply naming yourself as Jewish sufficient? If there is no content to your Jewish cultural identity, what exactly are you sustaining?
Being Jewish, for these three cousins, seems to be mostly an aspect of their individual identity. One question in the play is what, exactly, needs to continue to exist so that any individual can still have a Jewish identity to cling to. Older relatives? Childhood memories? Holocaust awareness? Recipes and celebrations? Trips to Israel? At least some observant Jews to keep the rest of us going? Daphna jabs Liam by pointing out that when it's time to criticize Israel, he prefaces his negative remarks with “As a Jew...”
Harmon makes interesting use of the charming, innocent girlfriend Melody. To her, ethnicity is truly not important. The loaded question, “Where is your family from?” she answers with, “Delaware.” Her family is American, and that's all. At a more intense moment, when Daphna laments that intermarried “half-Jews/half-Delawares” will keep intermarrying until eventually their offspring won't be Jewish at all, Melody sees delight, not tragedy. “Just like the John Lennon song – Imagine there's no countries... no religion too.” That thought in the song has always bothered me a bit, and Harmon put his finger on the reason.
Director Kayla Gordon keeps the rhythms and pace shifting and engaging. After all the entertaining insults and emotional extremes, the last few minutes of the show are exciting and fascinating. A strong ending for a strong comedy.
May 13, 2015, 8:00pm
May 14, 2015, 8:00pm
May 16, 2015, 8:00pm
May 17, 2015, 2:00pm
Tickets $25-$40 (plus fees and taxes)
General Seating (Reserved Seating Available on Request)
*Warning – Strong Language, Suitable for 14+
Berney Theatre – 123 Doncaster Street, Winnipeg
Box Office – (204) 477-7478