Heritage. Ethnic Identity. Family Ties. Religious Beliefs. Tradition. Cultural History.
Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews” is about all of these aspects of the human condition. Nominated as the best new play by three separate organizations (2014 Lucille Lortel Awards, 2012-’13 Outer Critics Circle Awards, and 2014 Off Broadway Alliance Awards), it is a powerful play that is at times very funny, at others viciously honest, and at still others intensely poignant. And the current Capital Stage production of the play is a great way to experience everything that Harmon packs into the eighty minutes (in unbroken time) that his four characters spend together.
The play is set in a small studio apartment where younger brother Jonah is providing overnight quarters for his cousin Daphna and his older brother Liam, who arrives with his girlfriend Melody. In the opening scene, before Liam and Melody arrive, Daphna mentions to Jonah that she would like his support as she makes claim for a family heirloom their grandfather had kept during his life. The grandfather’s funeral has just been held, and his will left unclear to whom he was bequeathing the heirloom (a small piece of jewelry in the shape of the Hebrew letters that spell “chai,” the Hebrew word for life), which is clearly a cherished item in the family.
Jonah wants no part of what he seems to know will become a dispute between Daphna and his brother, and he makes his hoped-for neutrality clear to his cousin. By the time Liam and Melody arrive (they missed the funeral, as they were skiing in Aspen), the stage has been set for the histrionics that follow. It quickly becomes apparent that these relatives have a history, one that has been considerably other than all hugs and kisses. And in the battle for the right to possess the chai that ensues, truths and feelings are revealed that hit on all of those big things I mentioned above.
The last play in what has been an extraordinary season for Capital Stage (and the first full season as Producing Artistic Director for Michael Stevenson, to whom great credit goes for selecting this and the other terrific plays he has provided his audiences), “Bad Jews” raises questions about fidelity to faith and tradition and to the respect for heritage and ethnic origins that are prevalent in many communities that are experiencing the pull of assimilation and homogeneity. Daphna, soon to graduate from Vassar, then to move to Israel either to join the army or to become a rabbi, represents reverence for all that being Jewish means as a descendant of a holocaust survivor (which her grandfather was). Liam, on the other hand, is the atheist Jew who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Japanese culture and who proudly brings his shiksa girlfriend, which the blonde and blue-eyed Melody most definitely is. And Jonah would prefer not to be involved, instead seeking equanimity with his iPad and his ear plugs.
The dialogue in this play is the key to its importance, and it is wonderfully delivered by the four-member cast, all of whom are flat-out terrific. Tara Sissom fully embodies the role of Daphna. From her opening scene with Jonah, she is at once vulnerable and defiant, hesitant and committed, fearful and proud. She suffers proudly, almost as if she has determined to be as Jewish as she can possibly be, even as she laments the fate that has made her so. Hers is a masterful performance that merits special praise.
As her foil, Jeremy Kahn is a powerful Liam. He wants to deny his religion but not his heritage, which is why the chai is so important to him, and Mr. Kahn effectively delivers his character’s implicit ambivalence as he pledges his love to his girlfriend by seeking to give her the token of the religion he so determinedly rejects. It’s a tough role (as are all in this complex play), but Mr. Kahn handles it well, especially in a key moment late in the play when he decries the faith his cousin so ardently holds with references to the Bible that are harsh but true.
In the supporting roles, Noah Thompson (Jonah) and Chloe King (Melody) also shine. Ms. King has a show-stopping scene where she sings (her character was an opera major in college) to great comic effect. And throughout her portrayal, she conveys a sense of innocence that is appropriate for her character, both when she is hurt and when she is overjoyed. And Mr. Thompson is just about perfect in his portrayal of the younger brother/cousin who would rather be anywhere else but in the middle of the battle royal unfolding in his midst.
The production was directed by Amy Resnick, who obviously understood what the playwright intended and delivered it. The excellent set design is by Eric Broadwater, with lighting design by Timothy McNamara, costumes by Rebecca Redmond, and sound by the ever reliable Ed Lee.
“Bad Jews” is the kind of play Capital Stage exists to produce. It’s a cutting-edge exploration of the great “unmeltable ethnics” (a term first coined by Michael Novak in a 1972 treatise) in American society. Jews are certainly one such ethnicity. They can be stereotyped, but that is not Mr. Harmon’s intent. Rather, they epitomize the ongoing question in 21st century America, to wit: can the best traditions and cultural underpinnings of each ethnic group in an increasingly diversified country be maintained positively while the world around them insists that they give way to assimilation and homogeneity? It’s a question for which Mr. Harmon’s play doesn’t provide answers, only food for thought. In choosing to present it to Sacramento audiences, Mr. Stevenson and his fine cast and crew are providing the kind of theater that is best exemplified by Off-Broadway productions, which is the highest praise I can give to this excellent organization.
Performances of “Bad Jews” continue at the Capital Stage Theater through July 23 at 7:00pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8:00pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:00pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets and information are available to the box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464), and online (www.capstage.org).