“Bad Jews” hides the seeds of a good drama in a not-so-great comedy

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Alec Silberblatt and Amos VanderPoel directed by Jessica Stone at George Street Playhouse in
Alec Silberblatt and Amos VanderPoel directed by Jessica Stone at George Street Playhouse in "Bad Jews." Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Bad Jews, now appearing at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, gives a look into some old themes through a Jewish lens: the clash of cultural identity; the dispute over an inheritance; and the lingering resentments harbored in the heart of every family. Unfortunately, the main moral of this story seems to be: “Write your will clearly and distinctly before you pass on.”

"Bad Jews" with Maddie Jo Landers and Laura Lapidus is directed by Jessica Stone at George Street Playhouse.
“Bad Jews” with Maddie Jo Landers and Laura Lapidus is directed by Jessica Stone at George Street Playhouse.

Playwright Joshua Harmon introduces us to two twenty-something brothers, Liam and Jonah, and their cousin Daphna (neé Diana), who gather at Jonah’s Upper East Side studio apartment for the funeral of their grandfather. Liam has brought along his soon-to-be fiancée, Melody. The main squabble is between Daphna and Liam over possession of the grandfather’s golden chai necklace. Given to him by his father before they entered a concentration camp, it was used by the grandfather in place of a ring when proposing to his wife. Daphna wants it because she believes she is the most true to the traditions of Judaism; Liam wants it so he can propose in the same manner as his grandfather. By the end of the evening, truths uncomfortable and ugly are revealed, and only Jonah seems to understand the meaning of his grandfather’s legacy.

Laura Lapidus Alec Silberblatt Maddie Jo Landers and Amos VanderPoel in Joshua Harmon's "Bad Jews" at George Street Playhouse. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Laura Lapidus Alec Silberblatt Maddie Jo Landers and Amos VanderPoel in Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews” at George Street Playhouse. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The play does elicit some laughs from the audience, but I think it falls down in two major areas. First, most of the dialogue falls flat in scenes that are used only as exposition, or in having first Daphna, then Liam, try to enlist Jonah to their side in this battle of a family war. Second, the main body of the play consists of a series of monologues disguised as long-winded tirades hurled between Liam and Daphna, most of them eliciting guffaws from the audience but at heart basically not so much funny as discomfortingly cruel. A critical look at this play from a fresh perspective might lead to a sharper portrayal of the bickering cousins instead of the high-volume sledgehammer attack mode being used now, which would create deeper characters rather than the stereotypes put on parade here.

Director Jessica Stone made the most of what she was given, aided by the superb cast. While Amos VanderPoel, Laura Lapidus, and Alex Silberblatt give it their all as, respectively, Jonah, Daphna, and Liam, the standout in this cast is Maddie Jo Landers’ Melody. A monologue aimed at Daphna, revealing accurately and pointedly just how well Melody knows the wicked game Daphna is eager to play, is stunning in its quiet power. But this is topped when Melody, finally pushed too far, reveals just how dangerous it can be to go over the line when using malicious hauteur as a weapon. It’s a stunning performance and one that should be seen.

George Street Playhouse’s design team — scenic designer Charlie Corcoran, lighting designer Christopher J. Bailey, sound designer Drew Levy, and costume designer Sarah Laux — once again display why GSP’s design teams are among the best in the state on a consistent basis. Special mention goes to fight director Gerardo Rodriguez, who creates a ballet of controlled violence toward the end of the play that is so organic, so natural that it leaves the audience stunned.

I cannot recommend this play as a comedy, for all that the audience laughed at the astonishingly bad behavior of the two bickering cousins. However, I can recommend this as a budding drama with the potential to evolve into a fascinating character study of a dysfunctional family. In viewing it as a drama, you will be able to appreciate the promise hidden within Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews.

Bad Jews is presented by the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through April 9th. For tickets and information, visit www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org.