Sunday, November 16, 2014

Good news about Bad Jews

Daphna attacks! Alison McCartan, Victor Shopov, and Gillian Mariner Gordon in Bad Jews.  Photos: Craig Bailey


I'm afraid anti-Semites will be disappointed by Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon's acid take on the current state of the tribe of Judah (which plays through this weekend in a nastily crackling production at SpeakEasy Stage). Because the title's just a come-on - Harmon's Jews aren't really "bad" because of any nefarious conspiracy against the goyim, as the tinfoil-hat crowd would have it; they're "bad" because of their attitude toward their own Jewishness, its fraught legacy, and their responsibility toward their tribe.  In a word, these aren't so much "bad" Jews as judgy Jews.

And judging from this playwright's jaundiced, knowing view of certain Manhattan precincts (the whole show plays out in a one-room condo on Riverside Drive), every Jew seems to think of the rest as "bad" to some degree or other.  Of course this is perhaps only the inevitable result of a great tradition's slow divergence into many streams; "Jewishness" now yokes together a continuum of religious observance and political affiliation ranging from the Haredi to Jon Stewart (born John Stuart Liebowitz, btw). So the Jews, longtime advocates of diversity, have plenty of diversity to celebrate themselves - which, Harmon hints, only cloaks opposed philosophical and spiritual agendas, ongoing blood feuds and clashes on issues of gender, sex and race, and a perhaps unbridgeable divide over the ongoing project to establish the land of "Greater Israel" on the West Bank.

A traditional "chai."
Got all that? Well, don't worry, you won't really need it to enjoy the poisonous pleasures of Bad Jews, which isn't so much a political tract as a vituperative character study (or maybe even something like revenge porn). Front and center is one Daphna, née Diana, a Vassar grad who now prefers her Hebrew name to her English one - and indeed prefers all things Jewish to just about everything else. Daphna even plans to move to Israel, and abandon Manhattan's siren call of assimilation (she claims to have a hunky boyfriend serving heroically in the IDF). But before she goes, she is determined to get her hands on a particular family heirloom - the chai heroically preserved by her late grandfather "Poppy" as he somehow survived the Holocaust.

But no, goyishe Starbucks fans, we're not talking about tea. The word "chai" in Hebrew means "alive," and has come to stand as an eternal symbol of triumph over not just the Nazis but all anti-Semites, everywhere, since the Diaspora; thus the glyph formed by its two letters has long been worn as a medallion (particularly by Jewish men), known itself as a "chai" (at left). Chais have traditionally been passed down from one generation to the next - and given the history of this particular talisman, it is, shall we say, almost over-loaded with familial and cultural weight.

Hence Daphna's determination to save it from the clutches of her cousin Liam, with whom she's forced to share that cramped condo the night after Poppy's funeral (his quiet, leave-me-out-of-it brother Jonah is also moping on the sidelines). Liam's pseudo-Irish handle may belie his true identity, but it does accurately telegraph that he's as devout an assimilationist as Daphna is a separatist.  But who can blame him, when his Hebrew name is "Shlomo"? Although alas, Shlomo has run pretty far from that unfortunate moniker - in fact he has all but abandoned the Jews for the Japanese; he's now completing a Ph.D. in Japanese studies at University of Chicago (note that even the institutions of higher learning cited here are precisely calibrated for their obnoxiousness quotient). Worse still, Shlomo's engaged to a shiksa - to whom, in an act of genuine perversity, he wants to offer Poppy's chai in lieu of an engagement ring.

Yes. You may now have limned the clean, cruel lines of Harmon's diagrammatic cage-match: in one corner waits the obnoxious "über-Jew" (to quote the play's own snark), whose piety is mostly a mode of juvenile narcissism; in the other stands the smoothly assimilated yuppie-Jew, who has placed his faith in an idealized, deracinated utopia - just as we're taught we should in civics class! - but who is also genially making his own small contribution to what the Nazis never managed to accomplish: the eradication of Jewish tradition.

It's worth noting, however, that clear as these stakes may be, they're very different types of stakes, and Harmon (sharp as his characters' respective skewers are) is unsure of how to bring them into alignment. We may be eager to see the relentlessly obnoxious Daphna brought low (she's actually a recognizable type from just about every family, in every ethnic tradition); but in the end it's Shlomo who is committing the greater moral crime - and Harmon, though he acknowledges this in a U-turn coda, can't quite bring himself to actually weave Schlomo's calm monstrosity into the fabric of his play.

He's far more interested in nailing Daphna to the wall (or perhaps the cross!), which, as I mentioned, is often satisfying, but occasionally has a creepy revenge-porn edge, and which holds Harmon's rising bonfire of recrimination back from the Albee-esque proportions some have claimed for it. For the viciousness of Albee's characters somehow tears through their social presentation to the hidden truth beneath (we slowly divine in Virginia Woolf, for instance, that George is a greater monster than Martha). By comparison, Harmon lets Shlomo off easy.

Daphna on the prowl.  Photo: Craig Bailey
Still, Daphna deserves much of what she gets, particularly as played by the electrifying Alison McCartan, whose predatory performance is so ferocious that it often seems just a hair's-breadth away from caricature. McCartan's Daphna is a kind of chess-master of the family feud, not to mention a brilliant psychological tactician: she already knows her cousin's every weakness, and so can target his hypocrisies with laser-like precision; but she also expertly sizes up his vapid, unthreatening sweetheart, "Melody" in less than a second - and immediately seizes on the best way to humiliate her (by exposing the lack of talent that prompted her abandonment of her music studies).

The performance is so deeply inhabited, in fact, that McCartan is most magnetic when she's coiled in repose, brushing her hair obsessively, and planning her next mean-spirited move; but she also gives us the full measure of Daphna's grief, whether it's over her past as that awkward girl who cried when she didn't make cheerleader, or the loss of "Poppy," whom she clearly loved - and who clearly loved her back.

Whether Liam truly loves anyone is more open to debate - although the talented Victor Shopov didn't seem too interested in exploring that pivotal question. He does do a dynamite death-stare, however, and his slow burn is among the best in the business; so his Liam always holds his own against McCartan's Daphna; his eventual meltdown is also brilliantly timed, and amounts to comic gold. But I felt a blank where Liam's condescension to Melody should have been - nor was there much buried tension with brother Jonah (which there must be given the play's last-minute twist).

Still, the emotional spray from his blood-sport with Daphna may distract you from these gaps, as director Rebecca Bradshaw has orchestrated their combat so superbly. Bradshaw is clearly a talent to watch, btw, as she has also drawn subtle portrayals from her supporting cast. As Jonah, newcomer Alex Marz may not quite prepare us for the play's dénouement, but he expertly bobs and weaves his moody way through the family trenches. Meanwhile Gillian Mariner Gordon etches an appealing cameo as the empty, gentle Melody (and her subtle parody of second-rate vocal technique is a cringe-worthy pleasure).

And frankly, it's just nice to see a play with a real edge for a change at SpeakEasy. Bad Jews plays to the personal rather than the political, it's true; but as victimology has of late become this theatre's default mode, it was exciting to see them get back in touch with situations where there are no easy answers, and the heroes and the villains look different in different mirrors. You may not get a clear stand from Harmon on the political questions roiling American Jewry - just a sense of the resulting turbulence. But he portrays this emotional chop all but perfectly, and maybe for a young playwright's first big splash that's enough - particularly given that the sheer theatrical craft on display here (both in script and on stage) puts most of the other new plays on our local boards to shame.

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