Roaringly funny, Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews is the type of show that draws lines in the sand, then crosses them with absolute glee.
Presented by Theatre Calgary, Harmon’s Bad Jews stages a tense night between three cousins brought together by a death in the family. Of the three cousins, Daphna Feygenbauum (Bobbi Goddard) is the most devoted to the family’s Jewish faith. Her cousin Liam Haber (Jeremy Ferdman) is an atheist who studies Japanese youth culture at the graduate level, and Liam’s brother Jonah (David Sklar) is seemingly indifferent altogether.
Daphna and Liam have a history of not getting along, and the single night inside Jonah’s studio apartment proves no different. Liam’s grandfather has passed away, leaving a family heirloom up for grabs. The heirloom is a gold pendant, or chai, that survived the Holocaust and was given to Liam’s grandmother in place of a wedding ring. Ownership of the pendant is yet to be decided, and becomes a matter that Daphna wants resolved in her favour since the religious heirloom should go to a deserving religious person, she argues. Liam opposes the idea on the grounds that his grandfather supposedly promised it to him before his death, resulting in a heated confrontation between him and Daphna.
To say tempers flare would be an understatement as Daphna and Liam throw the worst of the worst at each other, saying the type of things that can never be taken back. Liam’s bubbly blonde and totally not Jewish girlfriend Melody (Katherine Zaborsky) gets caught in the mix with Jonah who tries to mediate peace between the two cousins.
What’s at stake in Harmon’s play is more than just a pendant, but the responsibility of tradition. What do the next generation owe their family, if anything at all, in regards to carrying on tradition? For Daphna, it’s a major responsibility given that her family’s Jewish faith not only survived the concentration camps, but thousands of years of persecution against her people. So, to have it all abruptly end with her is just not a possibility since it has never been easier to practice the faith, she says. Liam approaches the tradition from a more individualistic point of view. Why should he follow something that he doesn’t personally agree with, that has barely any relevance in the 21st century? From Liam’s perspective, it seems that tradition survives as a result of unfounded, sentimental guilt, and surely that’s not a good enough reason to keep tradition alive.
There are mostly strong (exaggerated) arguments for both sides, but unfortunately they are spoken by two very awful people. Daphna’s incredible insecurities have turned her to a self-righteous ball of loathing that has no other outlet than tearing people apart. Liam is a smug, upper-class academic who has no problem calling his cousin a certain ‘C’ word in front of his girlfriend. He walks over his brother like a metal boot on a doormat, and pressures him to take his side on the pendant fiasco. Harmon makes it not only hard to agree with anyone, but to agree with either Daphna or Liam for any time longer than a minute. The audience’s loyalty is in a constant state of flux, but one thing is for sure: the audience can’t help but feel bad for Melody who becomes Daphna’s latest victim.
The days following the passing of a family member are certainly sensitive times, but Harmon’s family drama reaches levels outside of the stratosphere. Harmon’s wild ride travels between the dramatic and the comedic like a rollercoaster from Hell. The audience is never certain what’s next for this play that turns on the dime frequently.
Director Valerie Planche manages the action well, bringing a sustained energy to Harmon’s tight script. Although, the play does begin to dip near the end as Harmon’s arguments on the importance of family legacy start to wane in careful thought and approach empty, profanity-laden rhetoric. Still, Planche succeeds in developing a pressure-cooker type environment where the actors are just about to pop their lids at any moment.
Set designer Cory Sincennes’s Manhattan apartment is ritzy indeed, but what goes down within the four walls is far from glamorous. Goddard’s fury matched with Ferdman’s strong, if arrogant, will just about brings the whole place down. There’s a real ugliness brought to the stage by the actors who throw themselves hundred percent into their roles. Zaborsky is a real treat as Melody, a trained opera singer now working as an administrator for a non-profit. She brings a doe-eyed innocence to Melody so palpable that we can almost feel her little heart shatter into a million pieces as Daphna twists her well-intentioned words to hate speech. Sklar doesn’t have as much to do since his character tries to stay out of the way as much he can. But Sklar’s reactions are enough that his character’s final moment hits hard after all is said and done in the 90 minute production.
A truly insightful debate about legacy escapes Harmon, but what’s here is enough to spark discussion about the significance of religious tradition in an era where young people are less religious than ever. The rise of non-traditional families also puts into conflict family values carried over from different eras. Harmon doesn’t hit this specific point head on, but he at least starts the dialogue at a very good place: with young people.
Theatre Calgary’s production of Bad Jews earns its opening night standing ovation.
Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews runs March 15 – April 10 at Theatre Calgary (The Max Bell Theatre).
For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: https://www.theatrecalgary.com/2015-16/bad-jews