TR Robertson …. Currently on stage at Old Town’s Cygnet Theatre is award winning playwright Joshua Harmon’s dark comedy, “Bad Jews”, loaded with savage humor, wonderful dialogue, thought provoking arguments and an amazing cast. The play was the third most-produced play of 2015 and was called, by “The New York Times”, the best comedy of the season when it opened. The play centers around three Jewish family members and one outsider as they deal with a treasured family heirloom being passed down by a deceased grandfather, referred to as Poppy, and the claim each of the relatives tries to invoke to obtain the necklace.
Harmon’s play was nominated for several Lucille Lortel Awards, Outer Critics Circle Awards and Off-Broadway Alliance Awards. It premiered off-Broadway in October 2012 at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Black Box Theatre and in London in 2015. Harmon is a recent graduate of Juilliard and has received numerous fellowships. He said he got the idea for the play “after attending a service in which grand-children of Holocaust survivors were invited to speak”. Cygnet’s production is directed by Rob Lutfy, who is also the Associate Artistic Director at Cygnet Theatre, having directed numerous productions here and around the country.
Photos by Cygnet Theatre
The play opens slowly with Jonah Haber trying to occupy himself with a video game, having just returned from his grandfather’s funeral. Jonah is played by Cygnet veteran Tom Zohar. Jonah is a melancholy young man who basically doesn’t want to become involved in anything that might cause upheaval in the family. His initially wishy-washy attitude is masterfully played by Tom Zohar. His revelation at the end of the play is an ah-hah moment.
Enter cousin Daphna Feygenbaum, referred to as Diana by Jonah’s brother, Liam. Daphna is played by a newcomer to San Diego audiences, Danielle Frimer. She brings enthusiasm and an over the top performance to the talkative, biting, sometime brutal, sarcastic humor and demeanor of this cousin, who is on a mission. Daphna is called Super Jew by the family as she feels she is destined to live a life surrounded by Jewish traditions, even telling the family she is marrying an Israeli soldier and moving to Israel. Daphna wants Jonah to support her in a quest to get the grandfather’s Chai necklace. The Chai is a Jewish cultural symbol for good fortune and connects them to living the Jewish traditions. She knows everything there is to know about the Chai. The Chai was hidden by the grandfather under his tongue for two years while he was held and survived life in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Daphna wants to approach Liam to get his support on getting the Chai.
Jonah and Daphna are awaiting the arrival of Jonah’s brother Liam Haber, who has missed the grandfather’s funeral. We find out he was skiing in Aspen with his non-Jewish girlfriend and he lost his phone on the ski slopes. Liam, referred to as Bad Jew, arrives, with girlfriend Melody, and the play immediately takes on a new tone. It is obvious Liam, played by another Cygnet veteran – Josh Odsess-Rubin, and Daphna do not like one another, do not agree philosophically or religiously on anything and Liam will present a twist that will throw Daphna’s plan out the window. Add to this Liam’s revelation that he plans on marrying a non-Jewish girl and everything hits the fan. Josh Odsess-Rubin presents an amazing display of the conflicted, angry, confused, somewhat domineering brother. Words and emotions fly from him in a series of monologues as he “battles” the iron-willed Daphna on traditions, Jewishness, changing values, changing attitudes, and the complicated issues this necklace represents. Caught in all of this is Melody, played by a third Cygnet veteran Katie Sapper. Melody becomes the boxing bag that Daphna takes advantage of as she questions why Melody is even with Liam, why she would marry a Jewish man, and snide comments about her education. Katie Sapper plays the initially even-keeled Melody with ease, until she has had enough of everyone and then she too launches into the emotional mood that has been building. There is a wonderful, funny scene, with Melody and Daphna, as Melody tries to calm Daphna by singing her a version of a Porgy and Bess song, “Summertime”.
This is a play that will educate you on some Jewish traditions, provide great discussions on complicated issues – such as inter-faith marriages, maybe remind you of many family arguments you have had on issues (like the death of loved ones and inheritance) and much more. As the promotional material stated, “There’s nothing like a death in the family to bring out the worst in people”, and it certainly is true for many families. It is well- acted, clever, witty, brutally frank and a play you should add to your list of theatre shows you should take in. Lutfy has intentionally cast three Jewish actors/actresses in the lead roles to give the play authenticity and it works. The program even provided a Bad Jews Glossary to help non-Jews, like myself, with terminology and definitions.
Cygnet Theatre has been the recipient of numerous 2016 Craig Noel Critics Circle Award nominations for the 2016 season for a number of their productions, including a nomination for Vista’s Bets Malone for her role in “The Rocky Horror Show”, nominated for Outstanding Featured Performance in a Musical – Female.
“Bad Jews” runs through February 12 with performances on Wednesday thru Sundays. Ticket prices start at $36 and can be purchased at www.cygnettheatre.com or call 619-337-1525. The theatre is located at 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town.