Friday, July 31, 2015

A Somewhat Irresolute Assessment of 'Bad Jews' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bad Jews
a play by Josh Harmon
a Theater Wit production
at Northlight Theatre, Skokie
Thru August 8

I'm sure that others, and even I myself, could cite numerous examples that contradict this statement, but I generally prefer artistic expression that leans more toward subtle than blatant, let alone crass or brazen.

Though it was a hit in New York in 2013, garnered a strong review from the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones when it opened in May at Theater Wit and has been running just down the street from me for over a month after a transfer to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, I largely ignored Bad Jews in part because the title struck me as overtly provocative.

But thanks to cheap tickets at the door and nothing else to do on a warm Thursday night, I decided to see if Bad Jews lived up or down to its name.

And while I won't argue that it's not artful, I essentially have the same issue with Joshua Harmon's play as I do with the title. Though it raises some thought-provoking issues, it does so largely in cringe-inducing, over-the-top ways.

Despite the title and certain insinuations within the work, neither Daphna (Laura Lapidus) or her cousin Liam (Ian Paul Custer) are, IMO, especially bad or good Jews. But both characters--perhaps to the credit of the performers and Harmon's script, but odious nonetheless--are annoying as all hell.

Daphna is a twentysomething Vassar student who purports to be dating an Israeli (after a trip there) and intending to pursue rabbinical studies.

The play opens with her in the apartment Liam shares with his brother, Jonah (Cory Kahane), in the wake of the death of their grandfather, referred to as "Poppy."

Due to a technological snafu while on vacation, Liam has missed Poppy's funeral and isn't present at the beginning, but even in her conversation with the rather timid and non-argumentative Jonah, Daphna is nails-on-a-chalkboardish.

Though not obviously devout, the extremely opinionated Daphna is holier-than-thou, and religiously observant enough to position herself as the "Good Jew" in opposition to Liam, who arrives home with a shiksa girlfriend in tow, the sweet-but-simple Melody (Erica Bittner).

Lapidus undoubtedly does a fine acting job in making Daphna unlikable, although despite being imbued with some ugly traces of superiority and intolerance, I found her more irritating than despicable.

Perhaps not so unlike me, Liam seems to be a Jew respectful of his heritage and reverent of his parents and Poppy (a Holocaust survivor), but non-practicing to the point of being an athiest, disdainful of the ritualistic nature of religion in which hypocrisy, contradiction and condemnation are often inherent and more acutely interested in exploring other cultures. (He is pursuing a Master's degree on Japanese culture.)

But rather than serving as a counterpoint to Daphna's strident righteousness, Liam is just as indignant and exasperating.

Thus histrionics ensue, of the sort that would prompt one's hasty departure from Thanksgiving dinner, but pretty much demanding that we see how things play out over the show's 90-minutes, with no intermission presumably to preclude so-inclined patrons from walking out the door.

A central thread to Harmon's narrative involves Daphna's desire to inherit Poppy's Chai necklace, a particularly cherished family heirloom that represents his remarkable story of survival through the Holocaust.

Jonah, who steadfastly--and ultimately rather irksomely--"doesn't want to get involved," stakes no claim on the piece of gold jewelry, but Liam very much wants it, for a reason Daphna finds particularly loathsome.

This leads to a rather fierce denouement that, while not pleasant to watch, is more riveting than the petulantly polarized verbal sparring that consumes the first hour.

There is a good amount of humor in the 4-person play, but not as much as one might think; Bad Jews is really more drama than comedy.

Quality writing is present--as is good acting by the cast originally at Theater Wit, now within the Northlight Theatre space--and while neither Daphna nor Liam are particularly likable, Harmon does allow both to make good points.

As posed by Fiddler on the Roof and various other works, the battle between being proud of one's heritage and wanting cultures to survive vs. being intolerant of those who find love across cultural/ethnic/religious lines makes for weighty consideration here, and it shouldn't surprise that easy answers aren't forthcoming.

The writer also does a fine job in eventually engendering empathy for all four characters, with a compelling glimpse into the psychosis that may be driving Daphna. I sensed I would have liked Jonah to be more prominent in the ongoing quarrels, but as played by Bittner, the Melody character is well-employed in part to defuse an undercurrent of haughty intellectualism.

There is certainly something to be said for creating artistry out of discomfiture, and just because the characters in Bad Jews are often unlikable doesn't mean the play itself isn't good.

But it does make it hard to recommend, to those of any faiths or beliefs. (Despite its title, which certainly doesn't hurt in drawing those of the Jewish persuasion, Bad Jews is largely universal in its prevailing themes.)

I guess if you're someone who likes theater that you don't really like, you well might admire Bad Jews. If nothing else, you should appreciate how good writer Harmon, director Jeremy Wechsler and the talented performers are in turning you off.

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