Good Jews? ‘Bad Jews’? It’s all relative

June 1, 2015

In Joshua Harmon’s scathingly funny play “Bad Jews,” opening at the Geffen Playhouse on June 17 (previews begin June 9), two cousins clash ferociously over who has the right to inherit the chai necklace that belonged to their beloved grandfather “Poppy,” which Poppy had preserved during the Holocaust by hiding the chai under his tongue.

As the 20-somethings quarrel while sitting shivah for their late grandfather, they represent opposite poles of the modern Jewish experience:  Daphna Feygenbaum (Molly Ephraim), born Diana, is an acerbic, self-righteous Vassar senior who has become obsessed with her heritage since visiting Israel and now is determined to study with a vegan female rabbi and to make aliyah. Her equally self-centered and condescending cousin, Liam Haber (Ari Brand), meanwhile, is a profoundly secular student of Asian culture who wants to propose to his non-Jewish girlfriend (Lili Fuller) by giving her Poppy’s chai — just as Poppy proposed to his wife decades earlier. The reluctant spectator to all the venom is Liam’s younger brother, Jonah (Raviv Ullman), who just doesn’t want to become involved in the fray.

The rhetoric is as extreme as the bickering cousins’ disparate cultural identities: Liam accuses Daphna of parading around Poppy’s shivah “like Super Jew … who, like, lords her … religious fanaticism over everyone.”  

Daphna, in turn, sarcastically calls Liam by his hated Hebrew name, Shlomo, and declares that he is interested in Judaism, “only when you can use it to bash all things Jewish, which somehow makes you stand a little taller.”

Along the way, the play explores such questions as what truly makes someone a bad Jew: Could it be a holier-than-thou attitude about the religion, the position that Judaism has no relevance and even deserves disdain, speaking cruelly to a relative in the aftermath of a family tragedy, or merely sitting by while your cousins verbally (and, at one point, literally) go for each other’s throats? And who has the right to pass on a grandparent’s legacy of the Holocaust, which is symbolized by that chai necklace?

“Bad Jews,” Harmon’s first produced play, debuted at the Roundabout Theatre in New York in 2012 and has gone on to become the third-most-produced play in the United States this season, earning good reviews from both the Jewish and non-Jewish press.  

Even so, Harmon, 32, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Westchester County, N.Y., and took a Birthright trip to Israel in his mid-20s, admits that some viewers might find the play’s title incendiary. He said he received a bit of hate mail from people who had not seen the play during its original run in New York and that a poster advertising “Bad Jews’ ” West End run was banned from the London subway.

Was Harmon concerned that the nagging Daphna, who is described in the character introductions as sporting “hair that screams: Jew,” could be perceived as a negative cliché? “I don’t think she’s a stereotype in the least, because I have not seen a lot of plays where the protagonist is a 21-year-old, very strongly Jewish girl,” he insisted. And the snooty Liam, he added, can be equally offensive as the doubting Jew.

“I don’t think she’s a stereotype in the least, because I have not seen a lot of plays where the protagonist is a 21-year-old, very strongly Jewish girl.” — Joshua Harmon, playwright

“The characters are all being looked at through a comic prism, but I don’t think of them as ugly,” Harmon continued. “Sure, they’re flawed. Yet they’re each trying their best to live an authentic, true life. For one of them, that means very much embracing her culture, and for the other, it’s a rejection of that and trying to embrace a much more secular, nonreligious identity. And so while there’s a lot of anger, the characters are not so much motivated in their fight by hatred of each other, so much as they are by love for their grandfather, and for what they think matters in what should be passed on.”

“There’s a long history of Jewish self-critique, which we’re certainly allowed to do,” the play’s director, Matt Shakman, whose father is Jewish and his mother Catholic, said during an interview at a Larchmont Boulevard cafe. “At the same time, enough different ideas and approaches to [Jewish] thinking are presented in the play so that people will walk away feeling like it’s balanced.”

Harmon won’t divulge details of his own Jewish observance or identity today because, he said, “It’s just better for the play to have me not speak about that.” Nor is “Bad Jews” remotely autobiographical; his relationship with his cousins growing up was “perfectly lovely,” Harmon said.

The idea for the play first came to him when he was a sophomore at Northwestern University and chanced to attend a Holocaust memorial service in which the grandchildren of survivors spoke of their forebears’ wartime experiences. “I found it extremely unmoving to hear the stories through this third-party perspective,” he recalled. “It wasn’t from the source, and so it really unsettled me and made me feel really uncomfortable.”

Harmon began wondering, “If the responsibility of telling and furthering education about the Holocaust is going to fall to my generation, how well-prepared are we to handle that? Who is responsible, and who claims ownership of it? And that planted the seed for this play.”

Yet Harmon didn’t start writing “Bad Jews” until 2011, during his fellowship at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire; on deadline, he hurriedly completed a draft, but said he spiraled into a panic attack upon emailing the play to his supervisors as soon as he pressed “send.” “I suddenly felt like I had written the worst thing that had ever been written in the history of the world,” he said.  

Harmon was shocked when the play was not only well received by the fellowship officials, but also earned him admission to Juilliard, where he had been declined three times previously. And then the Roundabout Theatre came calling about the 2012 production, which transformed Harmon from an essentially unproduced author into a busy playwright, writing Radio City’s “Spring Spectacular” this past year. He is now in rehearsals for his new romantic comedy, “Significant Other,” at the Roundabout.

Shakman, who has directed episodes of “Ugly Betty,” “The Good Wife” and “Mad Men” and is the founder of the Black Dahlia Theatre in Los Angeles, revealed that his own family history parallels some of the conflict in “Bad Jews.” His father grew up in a devout Jewish home, and his mother with religious Catholic parents, but, “When they met, they decided to have a relatively secular household,” he said.

Yet their interfaith marriage earned the ire of Shakman’s Jewish grandmother: “It was, of course, this big question of, ‘Why won’t my son marry a good Jewish lady, and how will we continue our tradition?’ ” he said.  

Shakman acknowledged that an over-the-top approach to the characters in “Bad Jews” might offend viewers with images of Jewish stereotypes; his approach, therefore, will be to focus on the protagonists as “real people who perhaps aren’t making the best choices” as well as the small moments in the play where “you can see that there is a strong family connection between these people.” And even though Shakman could have hired talented non-Jewish actors for the Jewish roles, he chose instead to cast Jews because “certainly I would rather have somebody who strongly connects on a personal level to the arguments in the play.”

Harmon, meanwhile, admits that he feels “a ton of pressure, almost all self-imposed,” for his next play to become as successful as “Bad Jews.” But, he said, “I just have to keep trusting my instincts and doing the very best work I possibly can.” 

For tickets and information about “Bad Jews,” visit geffenplayhouse.com.

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