As it turns out, the new, sensational, national theatre hit, Joshua Elias Harmon’ Bad Jews has a title with a double meaning. And, although, it’s called a comedy, multiple layers surface, making it more admirable and significant than you might think at first.
Although two young adult cousins viciously and vociferously tangle over a family heirloom, other elements heat up within their antagonism. The core issue about being devotedly and deeply Jewish lies at the roots of their discord. But, in addition, these nasty, self-centered people can’t stop behaving badly. Double bad.
All this and more comes raucously, funnily and vitally alive at Blue Barn Theatre thanks to an outstanding cast and perceptive, insightful direction by Susan Clement-Toberer.
Kudos, as well, to set designer Martin Scott Marchitto who, with Clement-Toberer, make the real-looking, small confines of a Manhattan apartment so closely tense that conflict within has its own dangerous dimension. The setting turns out to be a part of what happens and how, comically so.
Harmon’s script bursts with rapid fire invective from the two combatants in the ring. It flies so fast and furious that you may not be able to follow every telling blow. But you’ll get the point. And you’ll see that it’s not certain who’s winning which round. Therein lies part of Harmon’s accomplishment.
Other, more serious, thoughtful parts surface towards the end of the play when it becomes evident that young Harmon has mature insights. Moving moments appear.
Brothers Jonah and Liam share this high-priced Upper West Side property. Their cousin Daphna (aka Diana) is staying there following the death of their mutually beloved grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. Liam, having missed the just-concluded funeral, arrives bringing his gentile girlfriend Melody, with the intention of proposing, giving her not a ring, but a precious Hebrew ornament the grandfather treasured. Liam claims it by right, being a male descendant. Daphna believes that it should be hers, being more truly Jewish. Plus she also has a problem with allowing a non-Jew to meld with her family.
Although Daphna is usually deemed the more significant, more central role than Liam, Megan Friend and Jonathan Purcell look evenly matched, as well they should be. Friend has an astonishing skill to seem like a non-stop motor mouth, breathlessly spewing out comic insults, insights and opinions. She comes into her own when we ultimately see her as more serious and vulnerable. Purcell gets the most and best out of Liam’s babyish side, especially hilariously when he tries to find a place to pause and ponder in such claustrophobic territory. Almost a crib. Sydney Readman’s take on Melody has all the right dimensions. She and Clement-Toberer have excellently made sure that she’s no caricature, no bubble-head. This interpretation justifies Liam’s love for her. Readman also proves she has a superlative singing voice when Melody performs a truly unusual version of the Gershwins’ “Summertime.” Could those brothers hear it, they’d bounce with glee in their graves. As Jonah, Jon Robertson remains always genuine, sympathetic and sincere.
As has usually been the case, Blue Barn’s program book doesn’t inform audiences about the source of their performances. You might want to know, then, that Harmon wrote this while studying for an M.F.A. in playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University. While he was still there, the play got lots of great reviews, first for its 2012 off-Broadway debut and then its 2013 Broadway production. Since then the script has been grabbed by many theatre companies. He’s graduated and is also moving up in the theater world. Roundabout Theatre, who first produced this, has another new script by him opening in May. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/10/16/playwright-joshua-harmon-on-what-inspired-bad-jews/
Harmon, BTW, is Jewish. And one hell of a talent.
Bad Jews runs through March 14th at Blue Barn Theatre, 614 S. 11TH STREET. Thurs-Sat: 7:30 p.m. Sun, Mar. 1, 8 : 6 p.m. Tickets $25-30. www.bluebarn.org