Monday, January 23, 2017

“Bad Jews” Makes San Diego Premiere at Cygnet Theatre.

In playwright Joshua Harmon's new (and described by some as delicious and by some as savage) dramedy currently making a San Diego premiere at The Cygnet Theatre in Old Town three cousins, all Jewish with varying degrees of observance in the rituals and demands of the Jewish faith come together at Jonah Haber’s (Tom Zohar) upper west side apartment (Sean Fanning) soon after burying their beloved grandfather, Poppy.

Poppy was a Holocaust survivor. The fact that he was the only survivor left of his family was nothing short of a miracle. The fact that he managed to hide, under his tongue, a gold Chai (meaning luck and the symbol for the #18) and keep it for future generations was a double Chai.

Tom Zohar and Danielle Frimer
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Daphna believes (with all her misguided heart) that the Chai should be handed down to her because she is…the super Jew among the cousins.

She is studying to become a Rabbi and live in Israel. She is also more closely aligned with the traditions of Judaism and thinks it should stay in the family. Even Jonah thinks ‘it’s a family thing’. That’s some food for thought.

Liam the oldest of the three twenty something cousins, thought the Chai should be his because at some point Poppy said he should have it and by golly he will fight back to the last breath to keep it in his possession. Jonah (Tom Zohar) want’s no part of the Chai and he wants out of this argument even though he thinks it should be kept in the family.

Daphna (Danielle Frimer) has enough of the family goods on Liam to last a lifetime. Eating a non- kosher cookie on Passover in front of her years ago is just another weapon in her cache. Her vicious loud- mouthed supercilious and bellicose rants against him oft times brought the house down on opening night. Not so much on this end.

Tom Zohar, Kate Sapper and Josh Odsess-Rubin 
Just for you know what and giggles, Liam’s girlfriend, blond, blue-eyed Melody is the last person on the guest list.  She is the quiet, deer in the headlights, wide- eyed and bushy tailed, head over heels in love non-Jew almost engaged to Liam.

The fact that Liam and Melody missed the funeral because they were snowboarding in Aspen became another of the -oh so many areas of contention between Daphna and Liam. But the Chai is the Biggie!

Rant after rant, Daphna finds something to attack either Liam or Melody (once in a while Jonah) by bringing up family mishegas. She wants that Chai! The one complication unbeknownst to Daphna is that Liam already has the necklace with the Chai in his possession. In fact he took it to Aspen and was going give it to and  propose to Melody as a token of his love.

Josh Odsess-Rubin, Kate Sapper and Danielle Frimer
My first reaction after sitting through the all the screaming and finger pointing was that it took less than one hour into this 100 -minute intermission-les barrage of outrage between Liam and Daphna to make the quiet and easy going Melody sound almost as psychotic as the other’s looked and sounded.

Sapper is really a hoot trying to soothe Daphna by singing in her best operatic voice (OY!) with “Summertime” from Gershwins “Porgy and Bess”. (She majored in opera in college.) Have pity someone, she can’t sing to save herself.

She also had some pretty dingy come back lines for Daphna when she confessed that she always wanted hair like Daphna’s, or her explanation about her treble clef tattoo on her leg because she loves opera, to wit Daphna explains that Jewish law prohibits tattoos and if one does have one, they are wrong, not bad, but wrong! Period! Explanation point! End of conversation!

Frimer’s Daphna is so far off the charts when she is on one of her rants that she has to get an A+ just for being focused on being obnoxious. And that ethnic hair. It looked like it had been released from a tight braid bound up for years. Brushing the wavy thickness was another point of contention with Liam. There was hair all over the apartment floor, on the beds and he even felt he inhailed some to boot. 

Zohar, with the least amount of lines, makes the most of Jonah's nebbish character with body language and facial screw-ups that the audience laughed out loud at every chance they had. Suffice it to say; in the final scene he got ‘the last word’. No spoilers here. 

Odsess-Rubin, who wants it both ways, is as bad a Daphna in not being able to control his temper and loud outbursts on the one hand and not giving a damn what the others think of him on the other. They are all a bit of a mess. They hate each other. That should be a clue as to how they treat each other.

Director Rob Lutfy does his best to make each and every one of his one-dimensional characters worth caring about. It’s an admirable undertaking. Unfortunately Harmon gives him very little to work with. Anger and out of the ballpark ear deafening screams can never mask shallowness for character. Unfortunately no one in Harmon’s divided family show qualities like depth in character. It's easy not to like them in this flawed play.

This whole topic of Bad Jews had my panties in a knot. For lack of any other explanation for my discomfort with Harmon’s new play “Bad Jews”, is its title. It’s offensive to me. Who decides what or who makes a 'bad Jew'? Furthermore, what defines a bad Jew? 

Certainly ‘bad’ is not one of the adjectives one might brand another for eating on a ‘fast’ day or marrying out of the religion. How about non observant for starters? Or how about who cares?

The play’s cynicism also made me sad. More so, the topical stereotyping, the finger pointing, the money issues, the Ivy League schools and the disdain for family masked as humor are as much a turn off as is the title. “Virginia Woolf” this is not.

I’m sure my friend’s and colleagues or perhaps other Jewish members of the community will pounce on me for saying this but frankly I don’t think it matters to most what our thoughts are about how they practice, or not, their idea of what Judaism demands. It’s a complicated mess.

Is there room for a discussion for what the future holds for the new generation Jew? Of course there is, but lets start with a little civility  shall we?

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb.12th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619.337.1525
Production Type: Dramedy
Where: 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town
Ticket Prices: Start at $36.00
Venue: Theatre in Old Town

Photo: Daren Scott


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