Liam, the New York grandson of an immigrant Holocaust survivor, is dismissive of his culture and religion. To him, individualism is paramount: If he wants to discount the spiritual beliefs of his forefathers and diminish the importance of their rituals and traditions, that’s his right and prerogative.
Does that make him a “bad” Jew?
His one and only cousin, Daphna, sure thinks so. She, on the other hand, has dropped the Americanized version of her name, plans to move to Israel and is studying with a vegan rabbi. Does that make her a “good Jew”?
Fresno City College’s new production of Joshua Harmon’s viciously funny “Bad Jews” crackles with the kind of energy you can only get from warring family members. It’s a battle of wits, wills and words, and under Janine Christl’s fine direction, this dark comedy is a blistering good time.
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Many cousins have a sophisticated arsenal on which to draw when attacking each other, from shared experiences as small children to a lifetime of exposure to their own parents’ sometimes strained relationships.
Perhaps cousins are best suited on the stage to carry out scorched-earth encounters. It isn’t quite as uncomfortable for an audience to watch dueling cousins scratch and claw verbally as, say, siblings going at each other. Maybe that’s because there’s still something of an ideal in terms of how siblings treat each other, while the relationship between cousins can be so varied: as close as siblings, indifferent, cantankerous, loving. The important thing, however, is that many cousins have a sophisticated arsenal on which to draw when attacking each other, from shared experiences as small children to a lifetime of exposure to their own parents’ sometimes strained relationships.
In “Bad Jews,” the precipitating event for the cousin calamity is the death of their grandfather. When he dies, Daphna (a deft Marikah Christine Leal, in the strongest of the Fresno City College performances of hers I’ve seen), hopes to inherit her grandfather’s “chai,” a treasured gold medallion he held onto through his years in a concentration camp.
Liam (a promising Jacob Franz) has other plans, however. Even though he isn’t interested in his Jewish traditions, he wants the medallion, for reasons that become clear soon after the play begins.
His brother, Jonah (a terrific Quincy Maxwell), doesn’t want the medallion – but most of all he doesn’t want to be caught in the middle.
The play takes place in real time in the cramped but classy Manhattan studio apartment of Liam and Jonah, bought for them by their parents, who live just down the hall. (Christopher R. Boltz’s scenic design, enhanced by artwork from local painter Anne Whitehurst, is pitch perfect, right down to the trendy blue color scheme of the kitchen island.) The circumstances of their grandfather’s funeral means the three cousins, along with Liam’s non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody (Megan DeWitt, in a fine performance), are forced to share the small space for the night.
Christl has a fine feel of the dynamics of conflict, charting the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the two main combatants, and the whole play has a wonderfully trapped “No Exit” feel of desperate confinement. A highlight is the writing of Daphna’s character, whose passive-aggressive barbs are delivered with a chattering hurricane force. Alternately sympathetic and just downright mean, she fights with Masada-like commitment.
Acting-wise, Maxwell has the least showy role as the cousin trying to stay out of the war, but he’s such an effective counterbalance to the histrionics of the other two that he stands out. I especially like Maxwell’s reaction to the separate crying jags he’s subjected to, with his face saying much more than a dozen lines of dialogue.
I’ll leave it to the audience to determine the “goodness” and “badness” of the Jews in this show, but like most battles royale, there are fierce ideals on both sides. “If we all stop, it’s gone,” Daphna says of the thousands of years of her culture’s traditions. Liam asks: But at what price?
- 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, and Saturday, Nov. 21
- Fresno City College Studio Theatre
- www.fresnocitycollege.edu/boxofficetickets, 559-442-8221
- $14, $12 students and seniors