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Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews Is Disarmingly Funny, Gently Thought-Provoking, and Well Worth Seeing

If it were true that “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews would suffer greatly due to the loss of 90 percent of its conflict (along with a great deal of its hilarity). Fortunately, however, this is not the case; and under Beth Brody’s perceptive direction, A Big Wig Production’s opening-night performance at the Levin Jewish Community Center in Durham, NC, produce in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, was a true gem.

The play’s mighty opposites are a pair of twenty-something Jewish Americans — Diana (who prefers to be called by her Hebrew name: Daphna) and her cousin Liam (who does not prefer his Hebrew name: Schlomo), and that distinction is just the tip of the iceberg — with respect to their orientation toward their “Jewishness,” the two are polar opposites. It is almost as though each had purchased (and thoroughly studied) an instruction manual.

Diana (it would seem) had bought How to Be Jewish in the 21st Century,” and Liam, on the other hand, appears to have chosen How to be Secular ….” Prepare for the clash of titans. And prepare to pity Liam’s brother (Jonah) and his girlfriend (Melody) as they suffer collateral damage in the ensuing skirmishes.

The object that each wishes to possess is a family heirloom which they refer to as “Poppy’s Chai” (pronounced somewhere between “hi” with a “hard h” and “ki”). Their recently deceased grandfather Poppy was the only member of his family to survive The Holocaust. His Chai is a piece of jewelry with serious sentimental and cultural value. Specifically, the Chai is a Jewish symbol meaning “life,” and this one is on a chain to be worn as a necklace. (That’s the cultural significance.)

Poppy had received it from his father just before the two were separated by their Nazi captors. In order to keep it while imprisoned in Auschwitz, Poppy had kept it hidden under his tongue. After the war, Poppy immigrated to America where, unable to afford an engagement ring, he had proposed to his future wife using the Chai as the symbol of their love. (That’s the sentimental value.)

The Chai is in Liam’s possession; he asserts that “Poppy gave it to me.” As an homage both to Poppy and to a notion of family tradition, Liam plans to give Melody the Chai in place of an engagement ring when he proposes to her. Meanwhile, Diana has stated that the Chai is “the only thing of Poppy’s that [she] wants.” And she feels that she is the logical one to inherit it, because of her strict adherence to Jewish (and family) traditions.

Poppy’s funeral took place earlier in the day, and we meet these characters that night. Diana and Jonah had been among the more than 400 people who attended the funeral. Liam and Melody missed the funeral and have just arrived. The four will be spending the night together in a small “spare apartment,” owned by the parents of Liam and Jonah. Buckle your seatbelt as Diana’s “Jewisher-than-thou” attitude clashes with Liam’s laid-back, “revised standard version” world-view.

Diana cites an earlier occasion in which Liam had referred to himself as a “bad Jew.” As she rants, however, one must wonder just how “un-bad” should she consider her own “Jewishness.” Also: Does playwright Joshua Harmon intend to hold up Jonah as an example of not “bad”?.

A few of side notes:

  1. It is quite amusing that a play in which there is absolutely no harmony would include a character named Melody.
  2. There is deep symbolism in this play, concerning the concept of tattoos. Is dramatist Joshua Harmon being a bit heavy-handed?
  3. Is there any significance in the name Jonah? Is he in danger of being swallowed by this “whale” of a family feud?

Technical director Ami Kirk Jones has provided a set that consists of a properly claustrophobic true-to-life New York studio apartment, and she has cluttered it appropriately to indicate the circumstances of the occasion.

Lighting designer Tyson H. Jones has made the best of the tools that are available in this non-traditional venue. There are some short-comings, but they are easily over-looked.

But the true luster of this jewel-of-a-show is to be found in the acting. Chloe Oliver deftly avoids making Diana totally unsympathetic, and that is no small task. After all, this character is a quarrelsome, opinionated, high-and-mighty predator. She has no business being so mercilessly critical of her cousin and his fiancée. However, she is prepared to seize upon on any little bit of information as a means of attacking them. And she bullies the meek-and-mild Jonah for no apparent reason.

All of that said, Oliver imbues the character with a certain beneath-the-surface charm that disarms all disdain. She makes the audience empathize with her insecurities rather than condemn her for her means of dealing with them.

Ben Apple captures all the nuances expected of a character such as Liam (think Woody Allen). Liam knows what to expect from his cousin Diana, and he does his best to deal with her and her diatribes. As long as he can stay a step ahead, he can handle everything on an intellectual level. It is when push-comes-to-shove that Liam abandons the game plan and starts reacting on the “gut level.” And it is in these transitions that Apple’s skill is most apparent. Be on the lookout, by the way, for a sequence involving a bottle of aspirin, it’s priceless.

Ford Nelson’s Jonah tries his best to stay out of the way. Jonah does not want to take sides as Diana and Liam altercate. However, Nelson gives two distinct impressions early on. (1) He does have an opinion, but he is keeping it to himself. (2) He is harboring a secret that emphasizes the double-edged-ness of the term “bad Jew.”

Natalie Cooper is hilarious as Melody. A stereotypical dumb-blonde? Perhaps, but not played to the hilt, and thus not at all objectionable. Melody has obviously never encountered such tempestuous domestic squabbles and has no tools for navigating these rough waters. Melody inevitably experiences hurt feelings, and Cooper plays that subtext quite well even though the dialogue keeps it buried.

It is worth noting that there is a brief moment of “peace” when one of Diana’s criticisms of Liam leads to a happy memory of a visit to a restaurant, and she and her cousins bask in the warmth of that shared memory.

Disarmingly funny and gently thought-provoking, Bad Jews is certainly worth seeing. It plays Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays through Feb. 25th. We recommend allowing extra time for finding the venue. And we definitely suggest reading the inside cover of the program before the lights go down; there is an important vocabulary lesson there as well as a mission statement.

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 9th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Roy C. Dicks: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8825.

A Big Wig Production, in collaboration with the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, presents the regional premiere of BAD JEWS at 7 p.m. Feb. 8 and 10, 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 11, 7 p.m. Feb. 15 and 17, 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 18, 7 p.m. Feb. 22 and 24, and 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 25 at the Levin Jewish Community Center, 1937 West Cornwallis Rd., Durham, North Carolina 27705.

TICKETS: $19.62 ($11.34 students), including /service fees.

BOX OFFICE: 919-753-6626 or https://abigwigproduction.brownpapertickets.com/.

INFORMATION: 919-753-6626 or abigwigproduction@gmail.com.

SHOW: https://abigwigproduction.brownpapertickets.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/285402611934536/.

VIDEO PREVIEW (by Brian Yandle): https://vimeo.com/249426202.

PRESENTERS:

A Big Wig Production: https://abigwigproduction.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/ABigWigProduction/.

Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill: https://www.shalomdch.org/, https://www.facebook.com/DCHFed/, and https://twitter.com/DCHFed.

VENUE: https://levinjcc.org/, https://www.facebook.com/LevinJCC/, and https://twitter.com/levinjcc.

DIRECTIONS/MAP: :https://levinjcc.org/about/location/.

PARENTAL ADVISORY: This play contains strong language and is recommended for theatergoers aged 16 and up.

NOTE: One hundred percent (100%) of the ticket sales from the 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11th, performance will go to the N.C. Holocaust Speakers Bureau; and 100 percent of the ticket sales from the 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18th, performance will go to the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill.

OTHER LINKS:

Bad Jews (2012 Off-Broadway dark comedy): http://badjewstheplay.com/ (Australian production’s official website), http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/15161/bad-jews (Samuel French Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5677 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bad_Jews (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: https://issuu.com/geffenplayhouse/docs/bad_jews_-_study_guide (Geffen Playhouse of Los Angeles).

Joshua Harmon (New York City-based playwright): https://www.arts.gov/writers-corner/bio/joshua-harmon (National Endowment for the Arts bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/43295 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/joshua-harmon-509697 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_Harmon_(playwright) (Wikipedia).

Beth Brody (Raleigh, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/beth.brody.3 (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

A native of North Carolina, Yvette L. Holder has studied theater at three institutions: the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute (New York), and N.C. Central University, where she received a BA in Dramatic Arts. Yvette also promotes and produces comedy theater, as well as working with playwrights around the country during the development stage of their work. She hosts a monthly play reading session: “Sips and Scripts” at Imurj in downtown Raleigh. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read Yvette and Kurt’s reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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