Sunday, November 02, 2014

SpeakEasy Stage Company Has The Chutzpah To Present "Bad Jews" by Joshua Harmon - Another 24-Carat Gold Triumph

Beginning with the controversial title, "Bad Jews," Joshua Harmon's bold family drama/comedy, gets under your skin and forces you to scratch where it causes you to itch, wondering whether it is appropriate to laugh at the outrageous - and blatantly politically incorrect - goings on among the four characters. Under the strong direction of Rebecca Bradshaw, this SpeakEasy Stage Company production features a quartet of actors who are perfect in their respective roles, and who grate against each other like pistons in a four-cylinder engine that has blown a head gasket and lost all of its lubrication.

The setting is perfectly evoked by Eric Levenson's scenic design of an Upper West Side Riverside Drive studio apartment - with a view of the Hudson River from the bathroom window.  Jonah lives in the apartment that his parents have bought for him, and crashing with him are his cousin, Daphna, his older brother, Liam and Liam's girlfriend, Melody.  They have gathered for the funeral and Shiva of their beloved grandfather, a Holocaust survivor.  Part of the grandfather's legacy is the Chai medal he managed to hang onto throughout his interment in the concentration camp.  Part of the building tension centers on who will inherit that iconic Chai necklace.

The four characters are beautifully drawn by the playwright, and flawlessly played by these actors.

Jonah, the younger brother, is used by both Liam and Daphna as a pawn to try to strengthen their respective claims to the necklace.  Like his Old Testament namesake, Jonah is swallowed up by the enormity of the animus that exists between Liam and Daphna.  He is metaphorically vomited back up by Liam and Daphna's collective dyspepsia to speak prophetically - not with words but with a surprising action that is the emotional turning point of the play. Alex Marz manages to stand out as an unlikely hero, unassuming and withdrawn but silently determined to honor his grandfather's memory in his own unique way.  He establishes his character with telling gestures and facial expressions.

Daphna as portrayed by Alison McCartan is a force of nature, a control freak of the first order.  Ms. McCartan has created a nuanced villain with just enough humanity leaking through the outpourings of her acid tongue that the audience is on the edge of its seat waiting to see what outrage she will utter next and silently wishing her next zinger will be as biting as the last.  Her interrogation of Liam's Shiksa girlfriend, Melody - from Delaware - would win her a place on the medal stand of the Olympics of Outrageous Affrontery.  She will do anything to get that necklace.

Victor Shopov is Liam, late for his grandfather's funeral because he lost his cell phone while skiing in Aspen.  Mr. Shopov has established himself as an actor of growing renown, whose every character creates an indelible set of images in the minds and hearts of Boston audiences.  His over-the-top outburst against Daphna sucks the air out of the room, and is a highlight of this play.

Gillian Mariner Gordon as Melody has the toughest job of all to make herself heard through the cacophony and discord of Liam and Daphna's long-running feud. She starts out as a sweet and vacuous cipher, but shows real strength in taking a stand - atop Jonah's bed - demanding that Daphna be allowed to speak her peace when Liam has refused to listen to her reasons for believing she should possess the necklace.

Each character has a moment to shine and to speak from their hearts and their spleen; Jonah speaks with his action, which screams loudest of all.

On one level, this play is an examination of Jewish identity in the 21st century, pitting the secular Jew Liam against the militantly observant Daphna who plans to enlist in the Israeli Army.  At another level, it is an exploration of the universal dynamics that flow within each flawed family, regardless of religious affiliation or cultural heritage.

In the discussion period that followed the performance I attended, Jewish and non-Jewish audience members chimed in with their reactions and questions about the issues that the playwright has raised - without him presuming to offer any facile answers.  The broad spectrum of opinions speaks well of how deeply the playwright has touched nerves and awakened emotions.

This is a play worth watching and ruminating over, and a production that gleams like the 24-carat gold of the coveted Chai necklace.

"Bad Jews" will run at the Stanford Calderwood Pavillion of the Boston Center for the Arts through November 29.  Be a mensch and go see this show.  You will not be sorry.

SpeakEasy Stage Website



Gillian Mariner Gordon as Melody
Alex Marz as Jonah
Victor Shopov as Liam
Alison McCartan as Daphna
"Bad Jews"
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

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