As play titles go, they don’t come more loaded than “Bad Jews.” Fear not, though. "Bad Jews" is not an attack on anyone; it's more a Rorschach test that calls out not to anti-Semites but to members of the Jewish community themselves.
To me, for example, a bad Jew is someone outside of the Klinghoffer family who tried to shut down John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera this week, as such censoring of the arts is totally out of keeping with the tradition of open dialogue and artistic freedom. To them, that makes me a self-hater, ready to apologize for Palestinian terrorists, hence a bad Jew.
This is more or less the terrain of Joshua Harmon’s excellent one-act play, “Bad Jews,” in a charged SpeakEasy Stage Company production at the Boston Center for the Arts (through Nov. 29). Harmon gives Jews a chance to think about these questions and even laugh — uproariously at times — about how they’re asked. (But not answered. Harmon doesn’t pretend to have the answer.)
A smart dissection of assimilation and its discontents
Not that the play is only an internal dialogue any more than James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” are. The question of assimilation vs. ethnocentrism is a universal one, and one that each individual has to answer for him or herself.
The problem is that many people try to answer it for everyone else. Which often leads to fierce arguments within the community — and, in this case, great hilarity onstage. There is also the matter of the Holocaust in this case. Is the “never again” legacy a rallying call for Jews, as one of the characters in the play would have it? Or a cry that no one anywhere should have to endure ethnic cleansing, or even hatred, again? Alan Wolfe calls it the particularists, who lean right, vs. the universalists, who lean left, in his new book, “At Home in Exile.”
In “Bad Jews,” it’s more the ethnocentrists vs. the secularists. What brings the three cousins together is the death of the patriarch/grandfather, forcing them to spend the night together in a Riverside Drive studio. Daphna Feygenbaum, who used to be known as Diana, worshipped him. He was a Holocaust survivor who gave her a grounding in all things Judaic. She wants the Chai that he wore around his neck, a symbol of possibilities inherent in Jewish belief. Meaning “life,” it speaks to concerns both narrow and cosmic and she wants it around her neck as she’s prepared to march off to Israel and enlist in the army.
The Haber brothers are cut from different Jewish cloth, as you might infer from the name. Worse, in terms of assimilation, the older brother and Daphna’s foil is named Liam. Liam misses the funeral because he had been skiing with his girlfriend, Melody, a very WASPish young woman. (His previous girlfriend had been Asian, or Asian-American, all of which sends Daphna round the bend.)
And she’s not about to let him forget that he’s turned his back on Poppy, the grandfather, as well as the religion. He’s ready to throw the whole noble tradition that produced so many great thinkers and artists out the window to marry a “good person” who’s a bit of an airhead.
Here's an example of how it plays out:
Liam gives as good as he gets. His monologue about Daphna’s self-righteousness is one of the great moments in Boston theater this spring. “Her little Talmudic personality grows in two seconds like those sponges you put in water and she becomes this little uber-Jew, lording her fanaticism over everyone.”
You could justifiably say that none of the characters are likable, but you also have to say what a supremely likable production this is. Rebecca Bradshaw is an up and coming director who keeps the pace just right — neither too manic nor too static. The four actors so inhabit their characters that I bet most audience members couldn’t identify the one Jewish actor without looking at their names in the program, or in the next paragraph.
Victor Shopov is one of the most intense actors around and he uses that unrelenting stare to comedic as well as dramatic effect as Liam while Alison McCartan comes out of the blocks like Julia Louis-Dreyfus on a Grande Starbucks. It’s to her credit that Daphna is more than a stereotype; you can never quite write her off because McCartan invests so much charisma, and believability, into the performance. McCartan even makes Daphna's meanness fun, as when she goads Melody into singing "Summertime."
But then Harmon gives her and the others so much to work with, even if I don’t buy an ultra-Zionist going around quoting Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.” (He certainly didn’t go around quoting them, at least positively). But Harmon has a wicked sense of humor and the Zinn reference is used to great effect as Daphna gives Melody the lowdown on the genocidal nature of how her European forefathers settled the United States.
Every time the play starts to get a little prolix, Harmon snaps out of it. He has obviously lived these arguments and even if the characters aren’t drawn on his family, he knows his stuff. I’m not sure he adds anything to the never-ending dialogue except a needed jolt of humor, but it’s still a smart dissection of assimilation and its discontents.
Part of the great appeal of plays like “Bad Jews” is that the theater has become one of the few places (along with pay cable) where nuanced dialogue about ethnicity can occur, away from the culture wars. Much of that dialogue has taken place at SpeakEasy Stage Company, with plays and musicals like “Far from Heaven” and “Clybourne Park.”
Harmon’s “Bad Jews” is in very good company.