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Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews has become one of the most produced plays in the U.S. since its first staging in 2012. Its appeal stems from modern concerns about traditions of one particular faith as well as universal concerns about family conflicts, the nature of love, and finding one's true identity. The play manages to encompass all that while being hilarious, shocking, and moving, all in a mere 90 minutes.
The play's Triangle premiere from A Big Wig Production has a perceptive director and a fine cast, who ultimately triumphed on opening night over several major technical challenges.
The plot concerns two brothers, Jonah and Liam, and a female cousin, Daphna, who are brought together in New York City for their grandfather's funeral. All are university students, each grappling with how to live within the faith (or not) in the 21st century. Their various approaches have long clashed and now come into direct conflict while they and Liam's girlfriend, Melody, attempt to share a studio apartment for the night.
Daphna prides herself in being a good Jew, although her intense touting of the proof – trips to Israel, rabbinical studies and putdowns of wealthy Jews' extravagance – comes off as insecurity and jealousy. Liam rejects the faith, leading a secular life complete with a non-Jewish girlfriend. Jonah wants to be left out of any discussions of faith, finding it difficult to come down on his own opinions.
Tempers flare between Daphna and Liam when it comes to who will inherit their grandfather's treasured chai ("life") medallion, which he kept hidden throughout his time in a concentration camp. Daphna thinks it should go to her because she is the most devout among the grandchildren, but Liam feels he should get it as the oldest male (and he has particular plans for it in proposing marriage to Melody). This leads to bitter fighting with many hurtful accusations and selfish defenses, making Jonah shrink into the woodwork and Melody shell-shocked at such raw ugliness, especially when the arguments expand into everything that Daphna and Liam disagree on.
Although Harmon plays on stereotypes for some laughs, most of the humor comes from recognizable family squabbles and discord. The playwright subtly uses such conflict to bring up larger questions about whom one is allowed to love, whether certain traditions are worth keeping anymore, and lip service versus actual commitment to principles.
On opening night, Chloe Oliver's Daphna was appropriately irritating in her fast-talking complaints and laser beam focus on finding everyone's vulnerabilities to gain advantage. But Oliver also made the character sympathetic in her moments of reflection, revealing Daphna's own vulnerabilities. Oliver demonstrated amazing stamina in her constant, prattling dialogue and energetic bouncing around the stage.
Ben Apple's Liam was a study in pent-up frustration and long-held resentment, his stated rejection of faith belied by few unguarded moments. Apple's handling of Liam's lengthy lashing out at Daphna was frighteningly real.
Ford Nelson gave Jonah a quiet likability, amusing in his attempts to make himself invisible in the fray. As Melody, Natalie Cooper sometimes flirted with caricature but believably portrayed the character's naïve "can't we all get along" attitude and wide-eyed horror at the sparring relatives.
Director Beth Brody turned what could have been a slapstick slugfest into a meaningful experience, allowing for all the necessary comedy but making sure the emotional truths had their due. There were several instances in which the proximity of tissues and hankies were a plus.
The satisfying script, acting, and direction overcame some technical liabilities that nonetheless diminished the experience. It's to this young company's credit that it was determined to put on this worthy piece and that it found a willing partner in the Jewish Federation of Durham/Chapel Hill. But the unfortunate conditions of the staging in Durham's Levin Jewish Community Center's meeting hall included harsh lighting from floor stands that often left actors in shadows, a cramped stage with a rough set that didn't work as an expensive New York studio apartment, and blocking that often required sitting and lying on the stage floor, obscured to any but those on the front row because the rest of the seats behind it were on the flat floor.
In addition, seating was curved around the stage on both ends, the people in those seats often looking at actors' backs, either because the blocking had actors down at the front edge of the stage or they faced away from the sides for long periods. The acoustics were not particularly good in the hall, making Oliver's rapid-fire fulminations and Nelson's soft-spoken responses difficult to hear.
Nevertheless, the show can be recommended because of its engaging performers and meaty messages. It can be hoped that, for future shows, the company can find the technical resources to match its fine script selection and onstage talent.
Note: There is a lot of strong language in the script. The company recommends the show for ages 16 and up. Also be aware of the early start time of 7:00 pm for all evening shows.
Bad Jews continues through Sunday, February 25. Fore more details on this production, please view the sidebar.