Family dynamics can be exceedingly tough to navigate for just about anyone. For those who are observant or faithful to a creed, the struggle to adhere to religious and cultural norms, traditions, and expectations – in an arguably laissez-faire age — can have even more palpable consequences, never mind the element that various personalities can bring to the mix.
Luckily for “Bad Jews,” which runs through June 24th at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, CA, and is written by the very witty and incisive Joshua Harmon, this isn’t always necessarily a bad thing from the standpoint of engrossing entertainment. In fact, the play examines a Jewish family conflict in one continuous scene with lots of ranting, raving, as well as uproarious, and profound results by adeptly blending four discrete and well-developed characters.
We learn that a Holocaust-overcoming grandfather (“Poppy”) has recently passed away; however, the shiva (mourning period) in his wake is perhaps not as ideal as it should be as far as his grandchildren are concerned. This is not right away apparent with Daphna Feygenbaum (Jeanette Deutsch) — a strong, pushy, and highly opinionated woman with stout Jewish convictions — as it is initially more of an issue with her less orthodox cousins: Jonah Haber (Austin Rogers), whose Hudson-River-overlooking Manhattan studio apartment is the setting of the production, and mainly his older brother, Liam Haber (Noah James). Not to mention, disagreements between them are compounded when Liam, who was absent for the funeral, arrives from Aspen, CO, with his gentile girlfriend, Melody (Lila Hood), whom he’s going to propose to with his Poppy’s sacred chai (a traditional Jewish medallion with a chain that is believed to be connected to life and God). This is a major point of contention, though, because Daphna not only feels she’s the rightful heir to it, but that it should remain only in the immediate family.
As one can imagine, the problems gloriously stack up on each other, creating a dramatic and laugh-out-loud spitfire of a play that has not only been crafted with meticulous care, but ensures that every one of the audience members leaves with a provocatively memorable impression of what was just seen. From couched insults, to bursts of anger and full-on emotional unraveling, director Dana Resnick has coached her cast members to perfection, insofar that they not only share a very familial chemistry amid the madness, but are always giving maximum effort to the magnitude of lines in Harmon’s energy-infused script. Worthwhile contributors to this magnificent suspension of disbelief include scenic designer David Offner, whose cramped but cozy – and soon to be topsy-turvied set — is inviting; properties designer Josh La Cour, whose mattresses and suitcases nicely complement Offner’s set; and costumer Vicki Conrad, who has her performers dressed in agreeably comfortable clothes for the intense fracas that subsequently follows.
Jeanette Deutsch gives a terrific performance as the impassioned and righteously irascible Daphna. Deutsch’s character motivations are unrelenting, as they should be, and fixated on the Jewish ethics that have seemingly been breached by Liam’s stubbornness. The chutzpah that Deutsch brings to the role is also something that we can identify with because it reminds us that we, too, would likely fight just as hard for certain matters that mean just as much to us. Certainly, several complexities are struck by Deutsch’s performance, because, though we may find her Daphna to be exasperating, if not outright mean, we may also empathize with her emotions of losing the chai that is so dear to her.
Noah James’ sharp-tongued, hyper-intense, humorous, and allegedly sanctimonious Liam – a Japanese Cultural Studies Ph.D. student – is a treat to watch because of how in-the-moment James is at every step and turn, beginning with his appearance. When cooler heads don’t prevail, James’ Liam bursts at the seams with an unfettered and belligerent diatribe about Daphna being an insufferable “Super Jew,” whose real name is Diane (while she is in the bathroom), replete with the hammer-fisting of pillows, which sets the play’s wheels in accelerated motion for the last half. Moreover, James’ on-stage brother, Austin Rogers, is just as effective as the non-confrontational and quieter Jonah, thanks to a subtle performance that incorporates an almost pensive detachment from the 90-minute dispute. Rogers’ expressions often mirror that of the audience’s, and potently communicate just as much as words do.
Finally, Lila Hood’s Melody – a former Opera major with a treble clef tattoo on her calf — is perhaps the innocent bystander in all of this, caught in the web of a quarrel that has little to do with her, other than the fact that she is in a relationship with Liam. Hood’s characterizations are genial, appropriately confused at times, and seemingly normal in a boisterous brimstone-and-hysterical hell fire that, despite trying to play peacemaker, eventually engulfs her persona.
Unquestionably, the high-powered and high-octane family-fireworks affair of “Bad Jews” is compelling every minute of the way, accruing momentum at a feverish pace that elicits not just laughter, but brings to light questions about religious and cultural identity in a world that is becoming more globalized. In what is a credit to Harmon, Resnick, and the cast, the characters are multilayered, in the sense that there are takeaways from each that we can both agree and disagree on. There is no saint in “Bad Jews,” and that’s what makes it a rivetingly human story.
For more information about “Bad Jews” at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, CA, please visit odysseytheatre.com