(St. Petersburg, FL) July 14, 2018 –When I was a wee lad, my parents taught me THE Golden Rule: Family is everything. When the world runs amuck with unbridled insanity and chaos, find shelter with your family. When your job makes you feel as though you were a fly getting splattered against a windshield, seek comfort with your family. When you discover that your girlfriend is, in fact, possessed by a demon from hell whose sole purpose is to transform your life into utter misery…well, you get the point. This little lesson taught me that family makes up our emotional, developmental, moral, and, most appropriately, cultural foundations.
The bad news is in Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” somebody neglected to instill that Golden Rule to the members of the Feygenbaum and Haber families, where envy, rage, greed, and pride seem to serve as their only fuel for their existence, resulting in a considerable amount of verbal and emotional toxicity. The good news is this sort of poisonous drama can serve as the blueprint for some pretty good theatre…if placed in the right hands. And “Bad Jews” doesn’t fail at its Tampa Bay Area premiere. Thanks to Joshua Harmon’s deft writing and the brilliant talents of the actors, “Bad Jews” serves as a satisfactory finale’ to American Stage’s 2017/18 season.
Tensions run high between three cousins after the death of their grandfather. There is Daphna (Jenny Lester), whose devotion to her Jewish heritage is matched only by her unbendable will to speak her mind, and damn the consequences afterwards. There is Liam (Jackson Goldberg), whose spoiled-brat entitled behavior is matched only by his self-hatred. There is also Liam’s younger brother Jonah (Matt Acquard), whose gentle demeanor is matched by his distain for confrontation. And then there is Melody, (Kate Berg), Liam’s shiksa girlfriend, whose naivete’ is matched by her desire to always be cared for by Liam. At the center of this is their deceased grandfather’s gold chai necklace that has been passed down through the generations. Tempers flare regarding who should be the rightful owner of the heirloom, as well as the most suitable caregiver of their family’s legacy.
What is extraordinary about this work is Harmon’s strong ear for dialogue. At an 86-minute run time, I was concerned that the playwright (with this specific work) was indoctrinated by the “School of Theatrical Texting for the Creative A.D.D.” (see my review of “Strait of Gibraltar” for more details). But Harmon wonderfully captures his characters’ voices and balances the short, biting repartee with perfectly profound monologues that are very reminiscent of early Edward Albee, especially when Daphna and Liam verbally go at each other’s throats as though they were George and Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” These long, patient monologues reveal and drive the characters, thereby driving the overall story at a powerful, breakneck pace. Even though the final confrontation during the last ten minutes of the play does feel too rushed, especially resulting in Daphna’s sudden, uncharacteristic personality change that seems to come out of left field, the playwright has a strong sense of dramatic artistry.
Under the skilled guidance of Amy Resnick’s dynamic direction, the actors provide the play’s emotional punch. Lester’s Daphna is a witty motormouth whose verbal barbs cut like a samurai’s katana. Her passionate nature wonderfully alternates between hilarity and heartbreak, especially as she shares the background story of her grandfather’s chai with the other family members. Goldberg’s Liam is the perfect foil for Lester’s Daphna. He balances his dry, scathing humor with a type of explosive, self-loathing cruelty that would make anyone cringe. Goldberg’s and Lester’s combative chemistry is pure magic on the stage.
Berg’s Melody possesses a gentle sweetness that is interlaced with her sheltered gullibility. However, when she shows an unexpected side of her character at the end of the play, she expertly exposes this facet as though she was ripping off a band-aid from a freshly cut wound. Acquard has the most difficult job with Jonah. He hardly says anything throughout the entire run time. But when he performs a key symbolic action at the end of the play, he reveals to the audiences that his silences speak louder than the monologues of his costars. It’s a touching, nuanced performance by Acquard.
Overall, how was American Stage’s 2017/2018 season? It began with a powerful bang with three incredible productions, featuring classics such as “Raisin in the Sun” (my favorite), and “Much Ado About Nothing,” as well as critically acclaimed contemporary works like “The Royale.” “Marjorie Prime” was clear proof that science fiction can be performed theatrically with vivid emotional and technical power, and the American Stage production took that flawed script and made it sublime. As far as that horribly disappointing “Straight of Gibraltar” is concerned, the less said, the better. But “Bad Jews” came to the rescue, and hopefully, American Stage’s 2018/2019 season will surpass its predecessor with superior plays and spectacular productions.
Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, and playwright.
Bad Jews runs from July 11 – August 5, 2018
163 3rd St N.
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Photos by Beth Reynolds