Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Bad Jews
The Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Stephanie's review of After the Fall

J. Paul Zimmerman, Becky Vogsland,
and Abriana LaValley

Photo by Rhonda Backinoff
Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews, presented by the Jewish Community Center at the Desert Rose Playhouse, is a serious little play masquerading as a comedy. You go in intending to laugh, and you do, but you come out realizing that you've also just seen a Socratic dialectic about religion, tradition, family, ethnicity, and what it means to be a Jew nowadays. The antagonists (there are no protagonists in this show) wage a war of words back and forth, each side scoring valid points, and, as in most of the Platonic dialogues, there is no one right point of view or ultimate truth revealed. But at least we've been forced to think about things we took for granted before.

The play is specifically about American Jews. Otherwise, you couldn't have lines like "Do not Holocaust me" or "she'll be shoving shofars in her hideous unused vagina." If this kind of dialogue offends you on the page, give this play a chance anyway and you'll see that the vulgarity and insensitivity is not gratuitous; it's perfectly appropriate coming from the characters who spew it out. However, this play is not only for Jews. Anybody with relatives and a heritage of any sort should find some bit of relevance to their own lives in it.

The plot device is fairly simple. Papi, the grandfather and the only one in his family to survive the Holocaust, has just died in New York. He has only three grandchildren: Daphna (American name, Diana) Feygenbaum, and her cousins Jonah and Liam (Hebrew name, Shlomo) Haber, who are brothers. Liam missed the funeral because he was snowboarding in Aspen. He arrives that evening, bringing along his gentile girlfriend Melody. The bone of contention between Liam and Daphna is who will inherit Papi's "chai," the little gold medallion that is both the symbol for life and for the lucky number 18. "Bone" is the appropriate word, because they fight like dogs over it.

Daphna feels that it should come to her because she's the only good Jew (or so she thinks) among the grandchildren. Liam, a self-confessed bad Jew, wants it for other reasons. There's also the issue of Melody being there that drives Daphna crazy, especially since all four characters have to sleep in the same studio apartment that night. (I'll leave it up to you to decide whether Daphna has a thing for Liam or not.) Poor Jonah is there mainly for exposition and not much else, until the very end.

Daphna could be one of the most irritating characters in contemporary theater. Although smart (she goes to Vassar), she doesn't have much going for her except her Jewishness, which she wears like a life jacket. Abriana LaValley, as directed by Harry Zimmerman, portrays her as abrasive but also achingly sympathetic. It's a fine well-rounded performance. Harry's son, J. Paul Zimmerman, is a terrific Liam, intense, witty and vicious. Becky Vogsland as Melody gives the same performance that she did as Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a couple of months ago, but it's OK because the characters are essentially the same and Becky is very good at it. John Goddard is a little too reserved as Jonah, but there's not much there to work with.

I liked this play a lot, and it was a joy to see it so well performed. The Desert Rose is such a small theater that I felt like I was in the apartment with the characters. (Nice set design by Cody Kellen and props by Rhonda Backinoff.) My thanks to the Jewish Community Center for risking it, and to Harry Zimmerman for bringing it to Albuquerque. And I hope he can get his son to come and perform on our stages more often.

Bad Jews, presented by The Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 6921 Montgomery Blvd NE in Albuquerque NM, through September 24, 2017. Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00. No Friday night shows. Tickets are $25, but $15 for students age 14-22. Not recommended for under age 14. Info at