Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s production of Bad Jews is drop-your-eyes, shake-your-head, rub-your-forehead funny. Because your family, though maybe not Jewish, is most probably just as messy. The premise is simple: a grandfather dies and his three grandchildren—Daphna (Shea-Mikal Green) and brothers Liam (Jeremy Myers) and Jonah (Matt Lee)—are left to hash out their inheritance, namely who gets Papi’s Chai, a medallion of the Jewish symbol for life that he carried with him through the Holocaust. And because familial tussles can never happen behind closed doors, Liam’s sweet, light-hearted girlfriend Melody (Julia Becker) bears witness. In a tiny studio apartment, where nothing goes unheard.
Joshua Harmon’s script finds the seam of a family devastated and rips until it’s a tattered, unraveled thread dangling adrift. It’s aggressive and horrifying and, satisfyingly funny, invoking a deep sense of schadenfruede. So deep, it might stretch all the way to hell.
This script can’t succeed without performers unafraid to channel honest rage. MET has cast supremely well. Matt Lee’s hapless Jonah lurks behind whatever will conceal his true feelings for the whole show. His moments center stage captivate because of his reticence, which comes to seem less about listlessness and more about not wanting to further divide a family that’s already cracked. Becker, too, as a character caught between the sparring cousins, plays Melody like a sparrow unaware it has flown into glass. And never does she hit that glass harder than when singing to comfort Daphna.
But Daphna and Liam. Liam and Daphna. As different as they appear, they are two sides to the same coin, one that may be cut from the grandmother they both loathed. You don’t get the sense that they actually share that much in common with their beloved Papi. The Papi who had 400 people attend his funeral. Who persevered in a concentration camp. Who loved his roots, but maybe his family—the Jewish fanatic Daphna and the non-practicing Liam—even more. Who, like Jonah, didn’t want to further divide cousins already threatening to split what he had toiled so hard to preserve into two separate familial factions: the intense, know-it-all more Jewish than Jewish branch and the non-descript, white bread suburban urbanites.
Green does her job well, inciting anger as the strong-willed, prideful Daphna whose points—though obscured by her obnoxiousness—are valid: “Culture matters,” she tells her cousins. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
But, it is Myers’ unhinged Liam who hypnotizes in a rant so painfully honest—no pretense, no concealing of true feelings behind clever language or passive aggressive moves—it’s almost transcendent.
closes October 9, 2016
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Early on, before Liam and Melody arrive, Daphna wonders aloud to Jonah how, now that Papi is gone, they are becoming their parents. Not literally, just the generation responsible for making the effort to keep in touch. To take care of the aged. To collectively decide how much of a family they will be—small, insular units, or one big extended tree, something made all the more important by the Holocaust, which claimed Papi’s parents and siblings. And, then, you watch them—Liam, Daphna, Jonah, and Melody—sink and rise as they tread treacherous waters, negotiating with each other their own place in the larger structure and their individual identities, faith, and loves, which had all seemed so solid only a week earlier with their grandfather as the family anchor.
I won’t tell you who gets the Chai in the end, or rob you of hearing firsthand some of the ridiculously offensive things Liam and Daphna call each other. Just know that the heart of Bad Jews isn’t just family. It’s how that family forges forward when it loses its way.
Bad Jews is electrifying—a kind of metaphorical fistfight driven by the type of misplaced sorrow only familial love can beget. And it is cathartic to watch. Thanks to an honest, real cast brimming with tension and willing to go all out to convey a wickedly beautiful, painful, and funny script.
Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon. Directed by Gene Fouche. Featuring Julia Becker, Matt Lee, Shea-Mikal Green, and Jeremy Myers. Production Team: Rachel Smith, Stage Manager; Todd Mazzie, Set Desgn; Tabetha White, Lighting Design; Julie Herber, Costume Design; Mike Martin, Fight Choreography; James McGarvey, Properties; Amanda Spellman, Dramaturg; Bethanie Herman, Assistant Director; and Madeline Reinhold, Assistant Stage Manager. Produced by Maryland Ensemble Theatre . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.