The play has such a despicable name that you would think it would attract every neo-Nazi, Aryan Nation, skinhead anti-Semite in Southern California. The play is called “Bad Jews.” But, surprisingly, playwright Joshua Harmon’s four-person diatribe is actually a perceptive reflection of the way in which many modern Jews relate to their heritage.
In this generation it is almost axiomatic that in every Jewish family, especially in America, there will be at least one member who has married “out of the faith.” Leaving the rest of the family to deal with it, repudiate it, or reexamine their own relationship to the ancient religion of their forefathers. (Or, more accurately, their foremothers, since Judaism is passed down through the matrilineal line.)
It is this impasse that two brothers, Liam and Jonah (Jordan Wall and Tyler Alverson) and their dogmatically ferocious cousin Daphna (Sigi Gradwohl) find themselves in. Jonah and Daphna have come to New York for the funeral of their much-loved grandfather. Liam has arrived after the funeral because he had been vacationing in Aspen with his girlfriend Melody (Hilary Curwen). So not only had he upset the family by being late, he had had the temerity to bring Melody with him. And she isn’t even Jewish!
Daphna, used to having the undivided attention of her cousins, becomes instantly belligerent in a taunting, passive-aggressive way to both Melody and Liam. She is readying herself to enter rabbinical school and sees herself as the arbiter of all things religious, so she viciously attacks Liam for his avowed atheism. “You use your Judaism to knock everything Jewish,” she tells him, noting that he prefaces his criticisms with a righteous “As a Jew myself … ”
Liam counters with “Your righteousness is self-righteousness,” and talks about the directives in the Bible and the Talmud that are meaningless to him. Whereupon Daphna launches into some of the recognizable arguments, both intense and humorous, that many contemporary secular Jews use to explain their ongoing connection to a religion that they no longer believe in. The 5,000 years of history. The strength of the people to survive the incredible cruelty of other nations through the centuries in which those other cultures rose and fell. The long chain of identity, whether acknowledged or not, that comes with the traditions, the inherited viewpoints and attitudes, the shared humor, shared vernacular, and even the shared religion that they no longer practice. And then, of course, there is the immense pride in the accomplishments of the numerous Jewish Nobel Prize winners and the other celebrated scientists and artists of modern times.
Daphna’s argument concludes with a plea to Liam not to marry Melody, a gentile, because every mixed marriage, she says, leads to another generation lost to Judaism and to what could be the inevitable disappearance of the culture. These fulminations, however, are in aid of Daphna’s insistence that, as the religious member of the family, she should be the inheritor of their grandfather’s most cherished possession: the Chai, the gold symbol of life that he carried on a chain and managed to keep hidden through all his years in the concentration camps of the Holocaust.
When Daphna learns that Liam has the Chai that he claims their grandfather had given to him, she goes into overdrive. Even worse, she discovers that Liam intends to give the Chai to Melody when he proposes to her.
Melody had revealed earlier that she had had aspirations to become an opera singer, so Daphna, baiting her, invites her to sing for them. Whereupon Melody complies with a melodramatic, off-key rendering of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that brings down the house.
While all four characters are superbly directed by Sabrina Lloyd, it is Sigi Gradwohl as Daphna Feygenbaum who carries this giddy show. As the main protagonist, her role amounts to a virtual monologue, and she maintains her explosive anger and abusive arrogance throughout. From the beginning It is easy to understand her, and even to agree with her at times, but ironically, it is very difficult to like her.
“Bad Jews,” despite its dismayingly offensive title, can be seen at Theatre of Note, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through July 24th. For reservations, call (310) 502-0086 or visit www.badjewsinhollywood.com.