Theater & Arts

In ‘Bad Jews,’ dark comedy has the power to elicit goose bumps

Jacob Franz, Marikah Christine Leal and Quincy Maxwell star in the Fresno City College production of ‘Bad Jews.’
Jacob Franz, Marikah Christine Leal and Quincy Maxwell star in the Fresno City College production of ‘Bad Jews.’ Special to The Bee

As many people know all too well, a funeral can set off bad feelings among surviving family members.

For three cousins in the dark comedy “Bad Jews,” opening this weekend at Fresno City College, the fight is over a precious family heirloom. We caught up with director Janine Christl to talk about playwright Joshua Harmon and the “savage humor” of the play, which was a New York Times critics’ pick when it ran off-Broadway in 2013.

Q: It’s quite the title. Any concern among college administrators?

A: I’ve had some double takes when I say the title, and I’m sure there have been some questions asked behind the scenes about it. Of course, I was never told that I wasn’t allowed to do it, and I appreciate the trust our higher ups have in our artistic decision-making. The playwright is Jewish and said he came up with the title years before writing the play. Theater is often provocative and involves taking risks. This play is no exception.

Q: Tell us about the show.

A: It’s the night after their grandfather’s funeral, and three cousins are brought together in a New York studio apartment. Daphna, the “Real Jew,” makes a plea for her grandfather’s Chai necklace, a family memento he held onto while surviving a Nazi concentration camp. But, when Liam walks in with his shiksa girlfriend, the story takes a new turn.

Who deserves this piece of family legacy? How does this family honor the past while living in a world that has moved far beyond its history? Is culture at the center of the argument or is it about love? While the framework involves a serious dispute, the play is both funny and poignant.

Q: Is there such a thing as “Jewish humor”? (I know I’ve heard about the “Borscht Belt” in the Catskills.)

A: Well, the Borscht Belt was a popular resort area known for hosting Jewish entertainers starting in the early 20th century. Their theaters regularly had comedians such as Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Bea Arthur … the list goes on and on. The “Jewish humor” was known to be fast paced and self-deprecating in style and form.

While I would say both of those qualities are present in our play, I would not classify “Bad Jews” as a play focused on one type of humor. The heightened circumstances bring about a level of intensity that naturally causes humor to erupt out of other emotions: sadness, anger, longing and defensiveness. There is some bad language and some shocking moments, but the majority of the comedy depends on real responses to extreme positions. It does involve religion on one level, but it is more connected to the life experience and age of the characters on stage.

Q: Do you think Fresno audiences will react the same way to the humor in the show as those in New York?

A: I think Fresno audiences will relate to this play just as well as New York audiences because the heart of the story is something we universally face in our family structures. We all have these differences at some level or another and have to address what we think is best for the created history of our namesake. “Bad Jews” is like sitting on any family’s living room couch when a debate takes place about what or who is “best” for their relations. It’s heated, it’s funny and it’s moving.

Also, “Bad Jews” was one of the top 10 most produced plays for the 2014-15 season across America, according to American Theatre Magazine. So, that tells me areas other than New York are intrigued by and invested in hearing this story.

Q: Working with younger and more inexperienced actors, what is the biggest challenge in directing a dark comedy?

A: We spent a great deal of time talking about this family’s history, giving the stories that come up a past and individualizing relationships to each character on set. My actors are a dynamic team together and I can’t wait to see them fly with an audience joining them on their journey.

Joshua Harmon (playwright) was inspired to write “Bad Jews” after attending a Yom Hashoah with a theme of “Grandchildren of Survivors.” In interviews he talked about feeling like the service was “strange and sterile” because the grandchildren who spoke were so far removed from the life their grandparents’ lived. In directing this piece, I found it challenging to get my actors to really think about what their Poppy had lived through. To inspire the cast to consume this dark piece of history, that feels so distanced in our lives now, and realize the differences in our levels of safety and comfort was the most challenging. Luckily, this disconnect is addressed in the play and I appreciate that Harmon has written a piece that reminds us that life (represented by Poppy’s Chai) is precious and transforming.

Q: Tell me a little about your cast and creative team.

A: I have a cast that I’ve worked with in the classroom or performance setting before. These are bright actors that take their roles seriously and have related to their characters without an issue. They are close to the ages they are playing on stage, which is always helpful. The cast in made up of four theatre arts students: Marikah Christine Leal playing Daphna, the “real” Jew; Jacob Franz playing Liam (the “bad” Jew); Quincy Maxwell plays Jonah (who is caught in the middle); and Megan DeWitt plays Melody (the Shiksa or non-Jew).

I also must mention my “right hand” Summer Session, who was an assistant director, my stage manager Sarah Dick and her assistant Kaderina Guizar. Our creative team is made up of Chris Boltz doing set and lighting design, Debra Erven doing costume and makeup design and Jeff Barrett doing sound design.

Also, I worked in collaboration with local artist Anne Whitehurst to fill the New York loft with original artwork. She provided three collections for us to feature both in the lobby as you enter to see the show and on set. It’s always nice to bring in another element of artistic expression and the final touches of putting artwork on the walls and turning on the theatre lights really helped bring the space to life. I am so proud of all the work this group has done to bring you an absorbing theatre experience.

Q: Anything else?

A: This has been a moving piece of theater to work on as a director. It isn’t every show that you get to experience goose bumps as you sit and watch it unfold. That isn’t to say this is better (or worse) than shows I’ve worked on before, it’s just to say that it has made me feel things I didn’t expect to because of the way it’s written and the actors dedication to the stakes involved. I hope the audience is moved as well.

Bad Jews

Theater preview

  • 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, and Saturday, Nov. 14, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19-21; 2 p.m. Nov. 20-21
  • Fresno City College Studio Theatre
  • www.fresnocitycollege.edu/boxofficetickets, 559-442-8221
  • $14, $12 students and seniors
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