I was desperately trying to figure out what had happened the night before at the opening of Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews, Arizona Onstage Productions' distressing but funny family fight fest. At a most peculiar point, there had been a blackout mid-play. There was some awkward applause, but in a few minutes the lights came back on, and the actors, who had may their way offstage, returned and picked up where they left off.
Had director Kevin Johnson, usually quite dependable in his choices of plays and staging, stumbled over the edge of reliable producer to plummet to the dreaded plateau of bad director?
Johnson later explained via e-mail that the light board whiffed—blew a gasket or something, which flung the play into an unplanned darkness from which it never really recovered. I was relieved to find it was not intentional, but equally horrified for the poor cast and company. Nothing like a technical malfunction to remind us of the importance of all those designers and techies who make a show, well, a show.
Setting this aside as much as one can (since every movement, word and interaction is critical in the compressed story a play delivers), Harmon's play still doesn't quite deliver all the goods. He sets the table with characters who grate and grind. Its main dish is substantial, made by mixing this grating and grinding, but it's tough and hard to swallow. Fortunately, there are light sides that give us relief from chewing on the tough stuff, but generally the tough stuff should be the most nourishing.
In a tiny studio in New York are the young members of Poppy's family, gathered to mark his passing. It's Jonah's (Luka Vonier) residence, a pricey place that has been handed to him by wealthy parents. It even has a view of the Hudson, which is not lost on his cousin Diana (Shira Maas). Diana is a Vassar student who has been awakened to her Judaism in a radically obnoxious way. She wants to go to Israel and study with a vegan woman rabbi and would love to become a soldier. In short, she has become a "Super Jew," and now wishes to be called Daphna, her Jewish name. She is staying with Jonah to participate in the customs associated Poppy's passing, including, of course, his funeral, which was held that day.
Daphna talks and talks and rants whenever she deems it necessary (which seems to be pretty much all the time). She speaks a little too rapidly and constantly.
Jonah is unwilling to interact as she presses him about his apartment and things she doesn't have, which include Poppy's golden "chai," the Hebrew symbol meaning "life." Their grandfather had retained the medallion on a gold chain even in the death camps during the Holocaust by keeping it under his tongue. Daphna wants it because she is more—well, Jewish—than Jonah, and especially more so than his brother Liam (Jeremy Vega), who in her mind has discarded the mantle of Judaism and so shouldn't really even want it. She pleads with Jonah to dismiss any claims he might have on it. He essentially says whatever.
The two are awaiting the arrival of Liam, Jonah's brother, with girlfriend Melody (Beth May) in tow. Liam missed the funeral because he was in Aspen skiing and dropped his iPhone from the ski lift and couldn't be contacted. He failed to think, Daphna suggests, that he might use Melody's phone to check in to see how their very ill Poppy was doing. This is an appalling lack of Jewishness to Daphna, and, not surprisingly, she lets Liam have it. But, oh, is he prepared. He can give as much as she can, and does so, to Jonah and Melody's great discomfort.
As we might expect, Liam has different thoughts about the chai. It gets really ugly, and the way Harmon pulls his punches is with humor. There are some fine examples delivered by the young cast. When Daphna gets after Liam as she sits on the pullout bed brushing her hair, he explodes about filling the room with her "Jewish hair." When Daphna asks Melody where she is from, Melody replies, Delaware. No, her people. Where are her people from? Daphna is relentless, and the very blond and blue-eyed shiksa Melody, who has majored in opera, is overwhelmed with Daphna's judgment, wilting but trying to be gracious in a "Delawarean" manner.
One of the most charming but bitingly funny moments is when Daphna asks Melody to sing something to allegedly soothe her, and Melody lets out a, uh, remarkable "Summertime" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. May nails it.
However, the balance is a delicate one. Harmon's extreme characters are hard to like and that undercuts the seriousness he is bound to. We laugh at the sheer horror of Harmon's story's intensity and his characters' utter foolishness, which, of course, really isn't foolishness: It's danger.
This production is paced well, and Mark Tremblay's set works well, too. However, nuance is missing in some of the performances, which could make the piece funnier and not quite so predictable, and that, in turn, would make the conclusion land with more passion. It's frustrating to try to guess how the ending would have landed had there not been the blackout 12 minutes before the conclusion.
Overall, though, Bad Jews is a biting, mean and funny piece that leaves us with an awful realization: by looking at the ugly ways we use to justify our sense of right and our righteousness, it reveals that we are all, in some way, bad Jews.