San Diego Theater Review: BAD JEWS (Cygnet Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on January 24, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


There’s an old joke: “What do you get if you put three Jews in the same room?  Four opinions.” In Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, the joke is elevated to a new level when the three strikingly different people are two brothers, Liam and Jonah, and their feminist cousin Diane – all in their twenties.

The trio is dealing with the recent death of their grandfather, “Poppy”, who was the only member of his immediate family to survive the concentration camps seventy years ago. Central to the conflict is the gold “chai” (a Jewish symbol for life) necklace that he had worn since the 1940s, and, more important, which family member should inherit this family treasure.

While the generation in between – Diane’s father and the young men’s mother – do figure into the plot, Harmon carefully isolates their three offspring in a single room. This gives us their uniquely millennial perspective on issues that are so central in the Jewish community today: What is Judaism to this generation? Is it still a religion to them?  Is it more of a culture? Can it even be described as an ethnicity, given the way Jews across Europe isolated themselves from the general population – either for safety or by force? What do we give up if we refuse to participate in an American Christmas? And, conversely, what do we give up when we participate?

For Diane (who prefers to go by her Hebrew name Daphna), keeping the culture alive in her everyday life goes beyond preference; it is an obligation to those who fought for thousands of years for the right to follow these prayers and rituals. For Liam, it is merely where he came from but not something that should have to affect the choices he makes, especially whom he should love. And for Jonah, scarred by a life of this sort of conflict all around him, peace in the family appears to mean more to him than anything about Judaism.

Under Rob Lutfy’s tight direction, Harmon’s script is powerful and decidedly uncomfortable, especially with no intermission for a respite from the conflict. For some attendees, like this reviewer, who grew up hearing every point of view in this play impassionedly argued at home, the tension is more than believable – it is extremely familiar. Some of the most unforgettable passages are lengthy monologues, triumphantly delivered by Liam (Josh Odsess-Rubin) and Diane (Danielle Frimer) when they are given license to spew their side of the story. Neither comes off well, though, leaving us to decide for ourselves what we think (prepare yourself for some great post-show coffee conversation).

Adding a fourth perspective, welcome comic relief, and some lovely additional pathos is Katie Sapper as Melody, Liam’s cutie-pie WASP girlfriend. Melody is dragged into a family drama that she cannot relate to. She provides the world that the other three are cast against, as she clings to the hope that compromise can be found. Can it be? Find out for yourself in this roller coaster of emotion which should be a hit for the usually-on-target Cygnet Theatre.

[Note: Jewish terms are peppered throughout the play and even this ex-Bar-Mitzvah boy didn’t know all of them.  A quick brush-up on 18 words, phrases, and people included in the play is available in the show’s companion guide.  You don’t have to have them memorized, but a read-through will aid you in getting the jokes and references, adding your enjoyment of this fine script and production.]

photos by Daren Scott

Bad Jews
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on February 12, 2017
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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