“Bad Jews” Venerates and Perverts a Family Icon

By Perry Tannenbaum

With a good portion of his congregation nodding their assent or laughing out loud, my rabbi recently devoted a good portion of his sermon to cataloguing the different, often hilariously quirky paths that individual Jews choose in keeping the dietary laws and customs of kashrut. For most Jews, deciding what’s kosher and what’s not is just one of many personal decisions made without consulting rabbinical authorities.

Between the dictates of the Bible and the rabbis, there’s plenty to navigate. For those Orthodox and Chasidic Jews who diligently observe the commands of the Old Testament and the labyrinthine addenda of multitudes of rabbis – from before the birth of Jesus down to the present hour – slackers who do their own thing can be conveniently classed as the Bad Jews of Joshua Harmon’s dramatic comedy, now in its local premiere at Actor’s Theatre.

Within the framework of Harmon’s story, judgments aren’t that simple. Poppy Feygenbaum, the beloved patriarch of his family, has just died, and the funeral has already concluded when we encounter two of his grandchildren, Daphna and Jonah. They’re bunking together at Jonah’s posh apartment in the Upper West Side, overlooking the Hudson River, which his mom has thoughtfully bought for him.

Daphna, a more purposeful and self-righteous person than her mellow cousin, doesn’t take long before trying to make Jonah feel guilty over all this luxury that has fallen into his lap, but the guilt-mongering barely succeeds in getting him to lift his gaze from his MacBook. Yet the brunt of Daphna’s ill-will isn’t harbored against Jonah, anyway.

Through the tangle of her pugnacious, infrequently interrupted harangue, we get the full current of her resentments toward Jonah’s older brother, Liam, beginning with the damning fact that he missed the funeral. This is symptomatic in Daphna’s eyes of Liam’s moral laxity and his utter contempt for Judaism. We get a whole case against Liam before he even arrives – with all the contrasts between the combatants.

Veering away from her given name – Diana – Daphna is embracing her Hebrew name. She has an Israeli boyfriend whose Hebrew name, Gilad, keeps making its way into her conversation, and she intends to make aliyah (to settle in Israel) and pursue rabbinic studies. (For those who need decoding, that career path would mean she is a Reform or Conservative Jew.) Liam, on the other hand, has struck Daphna as deeply ashamed of his Hebrew name. He’s getting his degree in Japanese studies, he’s constantly dating outside the faith, and though he attends the family seders, his manner suggests an eye-rolling superiority to all the Passover rituals and outright contempt toward the holiday’s special dietary laws.

Daphna’s epic indictment is aimed at tipping Jonah toward her side in the great controversy to come. No, despite the unconscionable largesse of Jonah’s apartment, Daphna isn’t seeking a huge chunk of the estate or even a handsome bequest. All she wants is the chai pendant that Poppy wore around his neck. It’s a traditional religious object – chai is life or living in Hebrew – but among the Feygenbaums, it’s a relic. Braving the Nazis’ prohibitions against possessing any jewelry inside the notorious death camps, Poppy kept the chai under his tongue for the full duration of his captivity.

With Poppy gone, the chai is the last family survivor of the Holocaust.

Of course, it’s Daphna’s venom against Liam and his run of girlfriends, all the while bullying Jonah with her onslaught of verbiage, that makes her so comically insufferable. By the time Liam flies in from the ski slopes of Aspen with his new love, Melody, we understand why he instantly bridles at the mere idea of spending a single night in the same apartment with his cousin – and exposing Melody to her lacerating spitefulness.

On the other hand, the description we’ve gotten of Liam isn’t grossly exaggerated. In fact, the amped–up skittishness of Daphna’s presentation can be largely explained by how formidable Liam proves to be. He oozes arrogance and entitlement, nonchalantly domineering over his little brother. Nor is he an intellectual lightweight. He has evidently given some thought to his views on culture and religion, and he has a heartfelt reason why the chai pendant should belong to him. His plan for the pendant proves to be a highly-charged litmus test for both Jews and Christians in the audience.

Although Harmon’s script offers some latitude in presenting the relative badness of the main antagonists, director Tonya Bludsworth maintains a modicum of balance between them. Tommi May McNally gives Daphna a hyperactive oppressiveness that is almost precisely offset by the privileged smugness Brandon James bestows on Liam. Aside from a shared regard for Poppy, their family bond is mostly evidenced by the mutuality of their fear and detestation, leavened by a single episode when they share a laugh recalling old times.

The pacing is furious, but so is the pressure applied by both these warring titans on Jonah, the cousin and brother in the middle of the hostilities – overbearingly recruited by both sides. There’s a steady outlet for comedy as the insouciant Jonah shrivels and withdraws under the protracted two-pronged assault, but Chester Shepherd gallantly resists taking the easy way. Shepherd is never quite diminished to an inconsequential fetal ball, and that turns out to be the prudent decision in the end when Jonah makes his silent claim to be the best of the Jews onstage.

With her straight blonde hair and her simple beaming smile, Christine Noah is the perfect shiksa casting choice. Melody is so meek and simple, so uninitiated in the rough-and-tumble of Jewish needling and disputation, that I found myself yearning for moments when the Christian lass from Delaware would show some smarts and backbone. Happily, Melody isn’t as far beneath Liam as Daphna has presumed, but Noah’s squeaky rendition of the Gershwins’ “Summertime” gives her solid reasons to misperceive.

There is also one key miscalculation by Liam and Melody. Liam should definitely know better – he knew he was pushing Daphna’s buttons when he once offered her a shortbread cookie right after a Passover seder – but Melody has no clue how deeply this devoted granddaughter is invested in preserving the chai pendant as a holy Jewish heirloom. So at this impromptu family gathering, she will blunder into the role of paschal offering.

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