September 20, 2018

The Beauty of ‘Bad Jews’

Playwright Joshua Harmon’s darkly funny “Bad Jews” has been produced all over the world since its New York premiere in 2012, and was last staged in Los Angeles at the Geffen Playhouse in 2015. A new production, opening at the Odyssey Theatre on April 21, will run through mid-July.

In the story, grandchildren fight over their late grandpa’s chai necklace, with the religious, self-righteous Daphna on one side, her volatile cousin Liam (who has a shiksa girlfriend and his own plans for the heirloom) on the other, and Liam’s brother Jonah unhappily caught in the middle. Themes of loyalty and betrayal, honoring tradition, and what defines a good Jew and a bad one are explored.

“The beauty of the play is you can find good arguments in every character,” Noah James, who portrays Liam, said after a rehearsal. “It’s not just black or white. Liam doesn’t understand why Daphna wants him and all Jews to live a certain way, but he does understand her argument about preserving Judaism.”

James, the son of an Israeli father and an American mother, had a grandfather who was very active in the Jewish community. Judaism was a secular, cultural experience for his family. “But there is something nice about being able to connect to your ancestors by doing rituals Jews have done for thousands of years,” he said. “I think [‘Bad Jews’] is an exploration of what it means to be Jewish, but also [about] cultural identity and how you hold onto it.”

Jewish actress Jeanette Deutsch, who plays the holier-than-thou Daphna, is not religious but has Hebrew school, Jewish camps, a bat mitzvah and trips to Israel in her past. She regularly hosts holiday celebrations, like the recent seder the cast attended. She understands why some people, especially older Jews, might express concern over the play’s title.

“If we could be a little less vicious to each other and judge a bit less, we’d be better Jews.” — Dana Resnick

“I know it pushes buttons with people, but I think it’s funny,” she said. “People get offended without knowing that the play is a comedy and comes from a place of fun and love and art.” She and James have jokingly used the play’s title to describe themselves and others.

So has director Dana Resnick, who grew up in a kosher home, attended Hebrew school, became a bat mitzvah, and spent time in Jewish camps and Israel. Her Yiddish-speaking grandparents were Orthodox and owned a kosher bakery. “We call ourselves bad Jews, that’s what Jews do [when] we don’t fast on Yom Kippur or our children don’t know Hebrew,” she said.

Resnick was playwright Harmon’s classmate in the master’s of fine arts program at Carnegie Mellon University. She’s directed  “Bad Jews” before and said that having two Jews in the cast “makes my job easier. There’s a certain inflection and an understanding of the Holocaust that’s ingrained in a Jewish person.”

Austin Rogers, who plays Jonah, isn’t Jewish, but he has been taking an Introduction to Judaism class at the American Jewish University. Learning about Jewish history and rituals has been very helpful research, he said. He finds the play’s topics particularly relevant. “The idea of finding value in both sides of the argument speaks to the political climate we’re in,” he said. “It’s very timely.”

Resnick believes the play’s visceral emotions will move theatergoers and make them think about their treatment of others. “If we could be a little less vicious to each other and judge a bit less,” she said, “we’d be better Jews.”

“Bad Jews” runs April 21-July 17 at the Odyssey Theatre. Visit odysseytheatre.com for tickets and information.