2016 Templeton Prize Winner Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once said, “If Jewish survival is problematic, it is because Jewish identity itself is problematic.” What does it mean to be Jewish? How much should a person’s cultural identity define them? Has Judaism gotten so watered down that is becoming obsolete? These are some of the themes that course through Bad Jews, the Greenbelt Arts Center’s latest production, Directed by Bob Kleinberg. This is not to say that Bad Jews is a gripping and searing moral drama. Quite the contrary. But it is a comedy with some very serious undertones. As a reviewer, it is important for me to stay neutral, but in the interest of full disclosure, I am a Jewish woman who has struggled with some of these very issues, so I have a strong personal connection with this play. That said, on with the review…
As I walk into the theater I am transported back in time to my own childhood. The play takes place in New York City. The set is outfitted with a foldout couch and two air mattresses. I remember spending overnights at my grandparents’ house in Queens with my first cousins. As the play opens Michaela Haber as Diana – or Daphna, as she calls herself, showcasing her dedication to Judaism – bursts onto the scene in a whirlwind of dialogue and frenetic movement, while her bewildered cousin, Jonah, played by Marlow Vilchez, looks helplessly on, and I think about how different my sister and I are from my cousins – and yet – we are family. It is a nice moment of nostalgia.
It is revealed that the reason the two are here is because their beloved Poppy has passed on, and they have just come from his funeral. Daphna desperately wants her grandfather’s Chai necklace. For those who don’t know, “Chai” is a letter of the Hebrew alphabet and is very significant in Judaism. It is associated with the number 18, which is considered lucky. Many Jews wear this kind of necklace, but this particular piece is an important family heirloom. Apparently, Poppy had managed to keep it hidden throughout the Holocaust, and Daphna, who feels that she is the most Jewishly connected of the cousins, believes as a result that she is the most obvious choice to inherit it. However, Liam, played by Jason Kanow, older brother of Jonah, and the exact opposite of Daphna in terms of Jewish identity, wants to give the necklace to his shiksa girlfriend, Melody, played by Sarah Scott, for reasons you’ll have to see the play to understand. It is this necklace that represents the central conflict for both the family – and the play in general.
In spite of its eventual frenzied, hilarious vivacity, the show is messy and disjointed in the beginning. Michaela Haber, as Daphna, moves around so much and talks so fast, it is difficult to pin down what is happening. However, as the play progresses, she hits her stride and becomes increasingly enjoyable to watch. Her pacing matches her fervor about being Jewish – and about getting that necklace. She wants what she wants and will stop at nothing to get it. In the meantime, Marlowe Vilchez, as her much lower-energy cousin Jonah, is the exact opposite. He moves slowly, sputters, cringes, and cowers his way through the situation – trying desperately to escape the unrelenting pressure of his cousin’s barrage of dialogue and continual requests for support for her cause. At several points, in fact, he is literally backed into a corner of the stage. He plays his role with understated ease and quickly builds up the audience’s sympathy. It is a lot of fun to watch the cat-and-mouse quality of their interactions.
As older brother Liam, Jason Kanow deftly shapes the arc of his character – starting out as swaggering and confident, slowly reaching a fever pitch of ranting frustration as he and Daphna battle over the necklace. To his credit, Kanow manages to keep his rage funny rather than frightening. Finally, Sarah Scott, as sweet Melody, is a breath of fresh air. She seems the only one without a huge amount of drama surrounding her. Scott is funny and entertaining to watch as she saunters back and forth – trying to calm down the other three characters.
Bad Jews is hilariously funny, yet powerfully emotional and thought-provoking. It is definitely a worthwhile show to catch – whether you are Jewish or not!
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.