“Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon is a perfect example of how an intimate family drama can explore themes and issues much larger than any of the characters involved. This Seattle Public Theatre production, directed by Shana Bestock, is extremely well-acted throughout and never has a slack moment in its uninterrupted 90 minute playing time. The setting is a studio apartment where two brothers are spending the night with their cousin after attending their grandfather’s funeral service. Except for brother Liam (Ian Bond) who missed the service because he lost his cell phone in the snow at a skiing vacation he was on with his shiksa girlfriend, Melody. While the meek and unassertive brother Jonah (Ben Phillips) just wants the evening to go easily and for everyone to get a good night’s sleep, the volatile and assertively self-defined Jewish cousin, Daphna (Anna Kasabyan) isn’t about to let that happen. We discover that there is an heirloom, the grandfather’s chai necklace, which he carried in his mouth throughout the time he spent in Nazi concentration camps. Daphna wants it, both as an affirmation of her proudly Jewish heritage and as a meaningful connection with the family’s heritage and her own self-imposed connection to thousands of years of Jewish tradition. Ian doesn’t want her to have it, both because it is meant to be passed down to a male in the family, and (as we find out later) because he intends to give it to his girlfriend, Melody (Molly Corcoran) as an engagement gift. It doesn’t matter to him at all that’s she’s Christian with a family heritage that goes back no farther than Delaware. Oh, but it does matter to Daphna. It does so matter to Daphna.
While all of the actors carry out their performances very well, I was astounded by Anna Kasabyan as Daphna. She has about ten thousand lines and manages to make every one of them sound spontaneous, genuine and entirely personal to her character. This is a woman who can only think about what she says after she’s said it, but who also knows very well how much her religion and culture has shaped the woman that she is. Granted, Daphna was often obnoxious, crass and entirely too loud, but we soon learned that it was a result of how deeply she wanted and needed the connection to her family, to her past, and to her cultural heritage. She wants to go to Israel to be with a man she loves (who may or may not exist) but she also wants everything about her Jewishness to remain important to everyone in this family. Most of all, she wants to be the one who will carry the traditions of this family forward into the future, into a future in which that heritage seems to be getting less and less important.
The roadblock, of course, is Liam. Ian Bond plays the character as a man who really can’t stand to be around his cousin, Daphna, and who diminishes everything about that family tradition and the “faith” that it revolves around. He is a secular man who really sees nothing of significance in any faith, let alone one that is as archaic, tradition bound and intrusive as he sees Judaism. His girlfriend, Melody, went to college to study opera, which we soon discover she has no talent for. Molli Corcoran played the role very well, making her a woman as insubstantial as Liam, but also someone who is not willing to abdicate her limited sense of self-worth to fit in with a group she hardly knows at all. Finally, there is the younger brother, Jonah, played by Ben Phillips. Throughout the play we have a sense this this is a guy who has always been overlooked by his other sibling, and who really only wants to be sure that everything is peaceful and that his grandfather is paid due respect. It is only at the end of the play that we discover that he is willing to do something that shows that his own sense of family and cultural tradition is, perhaps, deeper than that of any of the others. Except that he carries it in his inner being, in his soul, and not in any sort of outward, angry, theatrical display like Liam and Daphna.
The physical design of this production is excellent, with Set and Lighting Design by Richard Schaefer creating a thoroughly believable upscale studio apartment. The costumes by Sonya Hachez are appropriate and take nothing away from the everyday, commonplace lives of the characters.
Much more than the theatrical invention of this production, the real impact of this play is in the authenticity of these characters and the power of their trivial, everyday arguments over matters that have enormous consequence. A good deal of that must be credited to Director Bestock, who not only keeps each of these individuals proportionate and recognizable, but gives us a sense of real family that is much larger than these particular people. We all have to assess and value the importance of our past, of our family heritage, of the lives that we live in the present. Especially for Jews, I think it is vital that they assess the place of their ancient heritage in the modern world, and the internal reality of their traditions and beliefs in the way that they lead their lives. This is a personal, spiritual and not political assessment. I didn’t really expect anything when I went to “Bad Jews”, but I came out of the show filled with questions and challenges to my own beliefs, my own sense of family, my own connection with my ancestors and their ways of life. This is an important play, given a fine production and first-rate performances. I highly recommend it to anyone.
PICTURED ABOVE: Anna Kasabyan (Daphna) and Ian Bond (Liam) are sparring relations in Seattle Public Theater's production of Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon.
PHOTO BY: Steven Sterne.