The Jewish Millennial Dilemma, on Stage at Cygnetby Pat Launer January 3, 2017
Admit it. Somewhere along the line, whether you’re secular or observant, the back of your neurotic brain has taunted you by saying, “You’re a bad Jew.”
The play called “Bad Jews,” by Joshua Harmon, has clearly struck a chord…and not only in the Jewish community. It’s been a big success in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Memphis, as well as Canada, England, Germany, Israel, South Africa and Australia.
The biting dramedy inspired critics to wax oxymoronic: “exhilaratingly abrasive,” “ferociously clever,” “scaldingly funny,” “delectably savage.”
When it ran Off Broadway (2012) and then On Broadway (2013), the comedy was nominated for the Lucille Lortel Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Play.
So, who are the bad Jews?
A New York Jewish family recently lost a beloved grandfather. He left behind a treasured piece of religious jewelry, a chai that he managed to hide even from the Nazis. On the night after the funeral, gathered in a cramped Manhattan apartment, the grandchildren (three cousins), fight over who is more “deserving” of the treasured family heirloom. In the process, they hurl vicious verbal attacks at each other over their religiosity and legacy, their relative closeness to their patriarch, their faith, cultural assimilation and even the validity of their love relationships.
New York-based playwright Joshua Harmon, age 33, is a graduate of Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon and Juilliard, who worked under acclaimed playwrights Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman. Just to give you a sense of his sensibility, he had a grandmother who, when he was 10, gave him a play to read and said that if/when he finished it, she’d take him to see a production of it. That play was “Medea” (the famously brutal Greek tragedy about a wronged woman who, in revenge and despair, murders her two children). He grew up to write what have been called “cruel, tender and very funny plays.”
Harmon’s first playwriting effort, “Bad Jews,” is a complete fiction, purportedly not in any way based on his own personal experiences. He insists that he had “a really nice family and nice cousins.” But the question he started with when he began to write the play, was “What do you do with Judaism?”
His characters include Daphna (née Diana), a big-haired, verbally aggressive, judgmental, Vassar-attending religious-fanatic, who’s aiming for the “pre-rabbinate” in Israel, where she reports having a soldier beau. Her cousin Liam is rich, spoiled, dating a shiksa (Melody, who’s also present), and too busy skiing in Aspen to have made it to his grandfather’s funeral. At the University of Chicago, he’s working toward a Ph.D. in contemporary Japanese youth culture. Between the battling cousins, running interference but not wanting to take sides, is young, geeky Jonah, who’s mostly into video games, but turns the tables on everyone at the end.
Washington Jewish Week, suggesting that a better title would be “Jews Behaving Badly,” called the play “an attempt to be part ‘Odd Couple,’ part ‘Virginia Woolf’.” The Chicago Tribune spoke of “two powerful, unyielding, opposing characters, each a toxic blend of certitude and insecurity.”
The bottom line of the lethally funny, fast-paced comedy is an exploration of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.
“I think this play is dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust on Millennials,” says Rob Lutfy, associate artistic director at Cygnet Theatre, where he’s directing the production (Jan. 12-Feb. 12). “They will be the last generation to know a survivor. Among many other things, this play is about how to grapple with that legacy.”
When Cygnet co-founder/artistic director Sean Murray first suggested the play, Lutfy thought that, not being Jewish, he was the wrong one to direct it.
But, he says, “a friend of mine, also a goy like me, directed it in San Francisco. And he said that, at the beginning, the audience dies laughing, and then they’re hit in the face. But he was really struck by the conversations overheard after the performance, from the lobby to the parking lot to drinks afterward. These families just wanted to keep talking about it. That sold it to me.”
Besides, Lutfy continues, “part of Cygnet’s mission is ‘to ignite debate.’ I hope this play ignites conversation and debate. That interaction – unpacking the ideas – was more interesting to me than seeing the play itself. This play really frames the conversation.”
Though not born Jewish, Lutfy considers himself to be “super super sensitive to our relationship to our immigrant past. But of course, he acknowledges that this is ultimately a Jewish story. And to honor that, he wanted to be sure to cast Jewish actors in the roles: Joshua Odsess-Rubin (also in the magnificent production Lutfy directed last year, “When the Rain Stops Falling”) as Liam; Israel-born local Tom Zohar as Jonah, and Danielle Frimer as Daphna.
“I think young Jewish actors are drawn to this play,” says Lutfy. “They want to play these roles; they feel like they know these people. I’ve never gotten so many unsolicited submissions (Frimer, the Yale University alumna who plays Daphna, sent a video).
“I don’t want the audience to pick sides,” Lutfy asserts. “In the way the play is written, you’re supposed to identify and empathize with all of them.”
Or hate each of them in turn, as the case may be.
“The challenge is not playing into stereotypes. At the core of these characters and arguments is this symbol, a ‘chai.’ To the playwright, it’s a reminder to value the time you have on earth.”
The battle is primarily between Daphna, who has, according to Lutfy, “embraced a wholesale immersion in the legacy of her religion, especially the Holocaust; and super-assimilated Liam, to whom all that feels inauthentic. They’re both living out their authentic truth, but they hate each other. Jonah is the wimpy one between them – who turns out to be actually living the truth.
“The dilemma for Jewish Millennials,” Lutfy continues, “is, ‘If I don’t want to be a Zionist, but I don’t want to completely deny this, where does that leave me?’ Then there’s Melody, who has no identification with her past at all. She barely knows where her family came from, which is true of many gentiles. ‘Bad Jews’ is something like a [George Bernard] Shaw play; the characters represent ideas in a claustrophobic setting.
“I think, deep down, the cousins all love each other. They’re all Jewish; they’re family. It’s about identity, how to carry through our past. How to preserve the history and the Holocaust.”
After he graduated college (the North Carolina School of the Arts, also Sean Murray’s alma mater), Lutfy lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and had many Jewish (Orthodox) friends. At times, he served as the “Shabbos goy” turning appliances off on Saturday. He was invited to the synagogue, he ate “incredible kosher food.” So he’s not completely unaware of the culture or the issues.
“One of the major themes of ‘Bad Jews,’ he says, “is the legacy of our own history and how to live authentically in relation to the past. Especially for minority groups; they need to reproduce. As Daphna puts it ‘we need to keep the bloodline.’ (To which Liam responds: “Keeping the race pure? You sound like a Nazi.”)
Lutfy continues: “The whole concept of ‘bad Jew’ vs. ‘good Jew’… what does that mean? Is it tied into religion? History? Looking back to look forward? Especially to the younger generation, the question is important. If you embrace your cultural heritage, but not the religion, can you be a ‘good Jew’? Are folks in the younger generation, who may be intermarrying and moving away from Zionism and questioning Israeli politics, ‘bad Jews’?
“For me,” Lutfy continues, “I don’t have that cultural heritage. My grandparents were Maronites, a Catholic sect hidden in the mountains of Lebanon. When they came to the U.S., they completely assimilated; they only wanted my father to speak English, to be American. On my mother’s side, there’s the American South; that’s not necessarily a history I wanted to identify with.
“This play is about preserving Jewish identity and culture. Holding fast to it. In a Christian family, there isn’t that same tradition or issue. In America, it’s often more about piecing together your own culture. But Jewish people never forget; there’s a purity to that. Keeping it alive. That appeals to me.”
In most cases, Lutfy explains, he’s drawn to plays “that demand my point of view. But this is the opposite. I just want to get out of the plays’ way. The poetry is in the relationships and how these people use their words. This is an actor’s play. These are witty, mean, real characters.
“In every design element,” he continues, “I don’t want a point of view. No poetic statement. It wants to be realism. The play starts in real time and doesn’t stop. We’re stuck in this small, confined apartment. There’s a lot of resentment among these highly emotional characters. And they’re all in mourning, at the same time.”
Liam and Daphna both think they’re entitled to the chai. He’s the oldest grandson. He just wants to think about his grandfather’s personal life; it has nothing to do with his cultural past. Daphna identifies with the culture and the religion. She feels that, for that reason, she was the closest to their grandfather.
“For lots of people, Jonah is a way into the play,” says Lutfy. “He’s in the middle of this tennis match. We may not like either of the players. He’s kind of the ‘Can’t we all just get along and remember this man?’ character.
“I’m excited to work with these actors, with the moment-to-moment of the comedy. And I want us to explore what happens after the play, when the characters pick up the pieces. How do we think they go on? These characters are young people in their 20s. They have a lot of learning to do. It’s about finding hope within a dark moment of life. I like to think there’s some hope for them all at the end. But I’m an optimist. I like optimistic theater.”
As for what happens to the audience after – Lutfy is well aware that Jewish culture welcomes debate and discussion.
“You don’t really have that in other cultures. For non-Jews, the play opens up a conversation. How do gentiles look at their past, carry it in their hearts? Josh [Harmon, the playwright] brings the humor to help everyone grapple with these issues. Sections of the audience will identify with one character or another. And that’s something for discussion, too.
“There have to be some Daphnas – headstrong, indomitable. Staying strong to the cultural heritage. And there will always be Liams, too. This is the conversation we need to be having at the end of the play. If Jews and gentiles are sitting next to each other and jointly engage in the discussion, so much the better.”
“Bad Jews” runs Jan. 12-Feb. 12 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. Tickets ($36-$57) and information are available at (619) 337-1525 and cygnettheatre.com.