Good, entertaining, satisfying theatre is increasingly hard to find.
The marketing departments for many of our artistic communities have identified easy access to audiences for fun musicals, gimmicky adaptations and emotionally trending sob stories. [How soon before the immersive audience experience, Ebola: The Musical?] All these promotional handles, unfortunately I’m afraid, too often actually just divert attention from good storytelling and cover up half-baked productions.
So, when a universally resonant story, staged simply and honestly with subtle, sophisticated performances comes along, theatre lovers should pay attention.
The SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Bad Jews at the Calderwood Pavilion through Nov 29 is just such an opportunity.
Gentiles might assume there’s nothing for them in this story about “family, faith and legacy,” but they’d be very wrong.
The three young cousins brought together in an Upper West Side studio for the mourning of their Holocaust-surviving grandfather’s death, grapple with big questions of identity, community, and self-projection. The context might be Judaism, but the substance is universal: Who am I? Where am I going? How am I connected?
This is pretty modern reasoning and Bad Jews is very much a story of this time. Daphna (Alison McCartan), born Diana and planning to start rabbinical training in Israel after graduating from Vassar in the spring, reminds us that it’s easier to be Jewish now than ever before. Indeed, she claims 22% of Nobel Prize Winners are Jewish. [I have not independently verified this, but it sounds right. . .]
Cousin Liam (Victor Shopov) integrates his Jewish privilege with a very different guise: devoting his life to studying Japanese and assuming the title “Jew” only when it might help him win an argument about the Mideast peace process.
Their polarizing identities result in some astounding, tour-de-force soliloquies. With language so smart and biting, performances so virtuosic, I couldn’t help but join in a spontaneous eruption of applause at the conclusion of one Victor’s especially gripping take-downs of Daphna.
What seems in my mind to make Bad Jews especially rich though is the room it gives to quieter, more subtle characters and performances.
Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Alex Marz) spends most of his time on stage playing a video game or sleeping. He has very few lines, in fact. And yet is as fully embodied and pivotal and colorful a character as his much louder brother and cousin.
Liam’s girlfriend Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon) is perhaps a little flatter than the rest, but that somehow only adds to her Midwestern gentile interloper status.
There’s definitely cleverness here — I loved the simple staging incorporating a hallway – but it’s not cleverness or even group affinities that makes Bad Jews work.
Much like a good life, Bad Jews is simple and honest and masterful.
by Joshua Harmon
directed by Rebecca Bradshaw
Performing at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion
through Nov. 29