Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
The basic theme of the play is cultural assimilation, yea or nay. As a Jew who attends services regularly, I have heard my rabbi speak on this subject, that assimilation represents the greatest danger to current day Judaism. As a gay man, with 90% of the population removed as potential romantic partners, I have never felt I had the luxury of being overly picky, so that, despite my strong religious identity, I have never been seriously involved with another Jew. Still, all of my long-term partners have respected and supported my strong faith side. Because of this, I found something of a disconnect with this play's theme, important as it is.
Harmon's script sets up a war zone between a religiously identified cousin and an older brother, meeting for the shiva of their grandfather. Also in attendance is the younger brother, torn between the two sides but trying to stay neutral, and the older brother's non-Jewish girlfriend, soon to be fiancée.
The characters are not evenly drawn. I found the cousin very harsh in her didactic point of view, and hard to sympathize with. The younger brother comes off as more than a bit of a nebbish, unwilling to take a stand or even try to find a position of compromise. The older brother is more sympathetic and his girlfriend, in compensation for her non-Judaism, has great waves of caring about others and compassion toward the world.
Acting these unequal parts becomes something of a landmine. Jenny Lester plays Daphna Feygenbaum, the cousin. She is all Jewish fire, and if she doesn't end up with as much of the audience's sympathy, well, I lay that blame on the playwright. Jackson Goldberg is older brother Liam Haber, Jewish deep in his soul, if not deep in his heart. He nicely captures the modern day ecumenical Jew. Kate Berg is perfect as Melody, Liam's girlfriend, blonde, blue-eyed, middle America. The part doesn't give Berg the range to play that she had in Echoes last fall at Urbanite Theatre in Sarasota. Matt Acquard seems somewhat miscast as Jonah, the younger brother. He doesn't manage the emotional or physical of Jewish. Coupled with the passivity of the writing, he doesn't make a good impression.
Director Amy Resnick has directed Bad Jews before, last year at Capitol Stage Company in Sacramento, California, so she understands that the play is not character driven so much as idea driven. She paces well, keeps the two conflicting ideas front and center, and allows the conflict to spark. She gets to set her action on set by Steven Mitchell which looks as if it really could be a $1 million Manhattan studio apartment, which the script specifies. Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte astounds with costume designs, Phillip Franck has designed the lighting and Ed Lee the sound, all effectively.
Sitting at opposite far reaches of the American Stage auditorium for the last two productions, I have had some serious issues hearing. I will in the future take the precaution of getting listening devices for this particular company, but I do want to point out that the women's voices are not carrying as well as some directors might think, and perhaps the problem is partially correctable.
I remain very pleased with Ms. Gularte's play choices, presenting three provocative plays to end each season on an exciting note. Next season is a different mix of the familiar and the new. Included are Stephen Adly Guirgis' Between Riverside and Crazy to open the season, Eugene O'Neill's monumental Long Day's Journey Into Night, Mamma Mia! at American Stage in the Park, and one of the most exciting new musicals in years, Fun Home, to close the season. Bad Jews definitely fits in as giving audiences something to think about.
Bad Jews, through August 5, 2018, at American Stage Theatre Company, 163 Third Street North, St. Petersburg FL. For more information, visit www.americanstage.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):