Bad Jews make good theatre in re-run
This drama with a sense of humour is an important and entertaining hit
By Byron Toben
Upon seeing Bad Jews a second time – it was a hit at the Segal some 22 months ago – I realized that my then review was, well, perfect.
So if you’re perfect, don’t change. Thus that review is repeated below.
The new remount has the same clever set, the same crisp direction by Lisa Rubin, the same spirited re-acting between older brother Liam (Jamie Elman) and cousin Daphna (Sarah Segal Lazar), the same nuanced seeming indifference by younger brother Noah (Jake Goldsbie).
It does have one cast change. As Melody, the shiksa fiancé of Liam, the accomplished Ellen Denny (Eliza Dolittle, Anne Shirley, etc.) replaces the excellent Victoria Diamond and doesn’t miss a beat.
The plot still involves a cousins’ fight over an artefact from their beloved grandfather who had somehow safely secreted a Chai during his concentration camp days in Europe and brought it to New York. A Chai is a mini sculpture, often worn on a chain of two Hebrew letters that spell Chai, a word meaning life and also the number 18. See picture below.
Oh yes, one new observation – Noah hangs around his apartment clad only in a shirt and boxer trunks. Who has to impress family? My kinda garb at home too. I can go on, but like him, I don’t want to get more involved.
So, here is my original review from before. Like then, a talk back follows every performance, so you can discuss intermarriage, Zionism, the future of society, the uniqueness and yet universality of the Jewish experience and etc., etc., etc.
First off, don’t be misled by the title, this play is not about Jewish gangsters during prohibition. It relates to today’s young people who observe their rituals but not strictly. They might snack on some cookies instead of only Matzoh during Passover and pass that off, somewhat dismissively, as being a “bad Jew”.
In this unexpected hit by Josh Harmon… now the third most produced play in the United States, as well as a hit abroad… two brothers and their female cousin meet in an upper West side apartment in New York to discuss the recent passing of their grandfather.
‘Poppy’ their zaida (Yiddish for grandfather) was a Holocaust survivor who arrived penniless in the USA and engendered the rich Haber family and the middle class Feigenbaum family. The apartment was in fact a gift for the younger brother, Jonah Haber (Jake Goldsbie), to live in while still a student. The older brother Liam (born Shlomo) Haber (Jamie Elman) is also studying post grad in Chicago and is wont to going on frequent vacations. The cousin Daphna Feigenbaum (Sarah Segal-Lazar) has plans to make Aliyah to Israel.
The biggest coup, to me, was enticing Montreal born actor Elman back from California to appear as the very secular Liam, a role consistent with his character in the web series Yidlife Crisis.
What a terrific cast Segal Artistic Director Lisa Rubin has assembled in her first directorial debut. The biggest coup, to me, was enticing Montreal born actor Elman back from California to appear as the very secular Liam, a role consistent with his character in the web series Yidlife Crisis. A revelation was Segal-Lazar’s emergence here in a meaty dramatic role after several lighthearted musical solos of her own.
Goldsbie’s non-committal, don’t get involved presence was the perfect balance to the confrontation between the two others. The confrontation was about the inheritance of a small but meaningful object left by Poppy. All this swirls around Melody (Victoria Diamond), a somewhat vapid Shiksa that Liam had just met and affianced on his ski vacation.
This “drama with a sense of humour” does have lots of laughs along the way. Underlying all is the Question — What is a Jew? Is it a religion only? Or a race? Or a dispersed, now partially re-united nationality? Is it a way of thinking or an obsession with prophetic preachings?
The program quotes comic Sarah Silverman: “Am I Jew? Yes, I’m a Jew. But I’m not. I really have no religion, you know what I mean? I’m just Jewish in that it like oozes out of my pores uncontrollably.”
The late New Yorker poet, Ogden Nash, wrote, “Bankers are like everybody else, except richer.” Perhaps one might say that Jews are like everybody else. Except more so. Anyway, Bad Jews does not overtly dwell on these philosophical discussions that underlie it. In the talkbacks after every performance, it becomes apparent that these questions of identity are universal, be they Irish or Italian or Armenian descended viewers.
Bad Jews, with its inventive set by Brian Dudkiewicz, continues at the Segal Centre until November 26.
Images: Leslie Schachter
Chai pendant image: Yehoshuapinto via Wikimedia Commons
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club