Monday, March 9, 2015

Theater Review: Bad Jews -- Long Wharf

Michael Steinmetz and Keilly McQuail  Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Dysfunctional Family and Religion Make Odd Death-Bed Fellows
By Lauren Yarger
When a survivor of the Holocaust dies, family dysfunction rears its very ugly head over who will get his most treasured possession in Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews playing at Long Wharf Theatre.

And I do mean ugly. In fact, if some of the long diatribes of vitriol the family members hurl at each other here weren’t so funny, you’d flee from the theater, run home and beg your mother to invite all of your family’s most annoying relatives over for dinner so you could thank them for not being as bad as this bunch.

Cousin Daphna (Keilley McQuail) crashes at the Upper Westside apartment of Jonah (Max Michael Miller) to attend the funeral of their grandfather. After thoroughly criticizing Jonah and his family for being too wealthy – his parent bought this pricey studio in their building (designed by Antje Ellermann) as a sort of spare bedroom --  she makes it clear that she wants their grandfather’s chai – a small golden religious ornament that he kept with him through his time in the concentration camps and used in place of a ring when he proposed to his wife.

A man of few words, Jonah indicates that he doesn’t see why she shouldn’t have it, but when his brother, Liam (Mike Steinmetz) shows up with his non-Jewish and blonde girlfriend, Melody (Christy Escobar), the shiksa hits the fan.

Liam, it seems, already has Poppy’s chai, perhaps through some manipulation by his mother on his behalf to secure it while his grandfather was in a coma, and plans to propose with it to Melody.  An apoplectic Daphna feels the item should be hers, since she is the only observant Jew among the cousins. Liam, with his Americanized name and Jonah, who rarely visits temple, are “bad Jews, she says. She is going to join her fianc√© (possibly a figment of her imagination) in Israel, she says as proof of her devotion to the religion. The idea of the heirloom passing out of the family doesn’t sit too well with Jonah, however, and he fails to lend Daphna the support she thought she had. Before the confrontation is over, a frenzied Daphna physically attacks Melody (fight direction by Tim Acito) to get the chai back.

While most of Harmon’s script consists of long monologues where characters say the most horrible things to each other, it does contain enough sharp, witty and biting dialogue to keep us in our seats. I’d say it is like witnessing a drive-by shooting where the bullets are words. Some audience members, however, were describing it as offensive.

Humor helps. Melody’s attempt to soothe Daphna with a song from Porgy and Bess is really sidesplitting. Daphna dismisses the WASP’s heritage (and her choice of opera as a major in college) outright, but this non-Jew might just know more about love and family than anyone else in the room. In the end wishy-washy Jonah shows he might have the deepest connection with Poppy’s time in the camps, despite Daphna’s memorization of his tattoo number.

Director Oliver Butler keeps the action moving for the 90-minute intermission-less production and coaxes solid performances form the ensemble – all making  their Long Wharf debuts.

Bad Jews continues through March 29 at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Performances vary. Tickets are $40-$70. 203-787-4282;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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