By Saul Golubcow
I’m always struck after I attend a play how the theater’s rest room assumes the nature of an agora where audience members voice and discuss their reactions to the performance with friends and even strangers. So it was last year as I entered the rest room of the Studio Theater at the conclusion of Bad Jews, a play by Joshua Harmon, which is starting a return run at the Studio Theater December 3. I certainly expected the usual kind of chatter, but I was stunned to hear both the decibel level and enthusiasm of rave reviews. The room was filled with “funniest play I ever saw” and “great, I don’t think I ever laughed so hard.” I had not liked the play, and hearing the overwhelming positive response, I slunk out to join my wife who had listened to similar sentiments in the ladies room.
I’ve now had a while to consider why my reaction to the play was so much out of the rest room mainstream and indeed that of many reviews. Since the playwright has no qualms about trading on Jewish stereotypes and catch phrases, I’ll respond in kind that the play reverberated badly in my “kishkas,” meaning I was troubled deep in my gut. And if I could travel back in time, I’d say to those around me, “A series of lusty guffaws does not a good play make” and then I would ask, “So when all is played out, what exactly is a “bad Jew?”
Somewhere embedded in one act, an attempt to be part Odd Couple and part Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and accomplishing neither, the production opens us to laugh out loud responses to the verbal provocations and antics of the characters as they seem to explore the question of what does it mean to be a young, modern Jew. The plot revolves around three Jewish family members, Daphna (Diana), her two cousins Liam (Shlomo) and Jonah, and Liam’s gentile girlfriend Melody who are stuck together overnight in an upper West Side apartment following the funeral of the cousins’ grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. At the heart of the stridency is the conflict between Daphna and Liam as to who deserves to inherit their grandfather’s chai necklace which he secreted at great risk until the war’s end.
Just relying on the easy appeal of the vicious banter to capture the audience (I freely admit, I laughed on a few occasions), the play fails to come near the richly detailed characters of Simon’s thrown together roommates and their clash of harmless foibles nor the tautly produced drama of Albee’s Virginia Woolf where our amused smiles at the opening innuendos and muted polite exchanges disappear as the couples’ flailing shreds layers and layers of delusion and pretense, and we embarrassedly view the detritus of failed marriages. Oscar and Felix may be cloying presences and in many ways bad for each other, but the audience grows to like each in his idiosyncratic ways. George and Martha, Nick and Honey may have injurious marriages, but they are deeply drawn characters and not intrinsically bad people.
But in Bad Jews, all of the characters are shallow, unlikable, and unappealing, providing us with no saving insights about contemporary American Jewish society including what it means to be a bad Jew. Daphna and Liam hate each other, but without nuance or depth, they are each right on the mark as to how they experience the other’s character. Daphna is petulant, rigid, obsessed with the superficial associations to things Jewish, and importantly, delusional as to social graces, relationships, and the existence of a made up fiancé serving in the Israeli army. Her “righteousness,” as Liam sneers, is “self-righteousness.” But if the dialogue itself is not enough to draw out her character, Harmon’s overplayed stage direction presents Daphna with “hair – thick, intense, curly, frizzy, long brown hair… Hair that screams: Jew.” Oh my, I ponder, does her hair then automatically scream “bad Jew?”
Liam is shallow, self-absorbed, defensive, smug, taken with his wealth, and culturally and traditionally anti-Jewish. He is committed to dating non-Jewish women, and his parents support him financially as he is completing his doctorate in “contemporary Japanese youth culture.” He hates his Hebrew name, Shlomo, and constantly feels himself “choking” on Daphna’s hair (oh how transparent) which she is monotonously brushing throughout the performance.
Jonah within the framework of this play may be described as a nebbish, but better he is non-assuming, timid, often withdrawn, vacillating, and susceptible to the bullying of his brother or cousin. His one moment of assertion comes at the play’s conclusion, a grotesque scene tied to Holocaust identification, that even after many moments of thought, I have no idea what is intended and certainly does not aid my understanding of what is meant by a “bad Jew.”
And then there’s Melody, Liam’s, of course, shiksa girlfriend who is presented with “short, stick-straight blonde hair.” Harmon really does have a thing about hair! The stage direction describes Melody “like someone who would have been abducted when she was nine but returned to her parents unharmed.”
This stereotypic empty-headed blond is vacuous, a failed opera major with an awful voice, who now works as a low-level administrator at a non-profit. When Daphnasnarkily asks her what type of a name is Melody, she answers, “Oh, I don’t know, Caucasian?” In contrast to the concentration camp numbers on the grandfathers arm, Melody sports a treble clef tattoo so as to never forget (oh please) how much music meant to her. And naturally Liam loves her and wishes to give her his grandfather’s chainecklace which is at the crux of the conflict with Daphna.
So Bad Jews is basically a battle of stereotypes which leaves me wanting so much more of the play’s substance, but what really confounds me at bottom is that culturally and historically there has never been in Judaism a notion of a “bad Jew.” From the bible forward, there have been Jewish rebels, traitors, heretics, and criminals who, rightly or wrongly, have been labeled as such, but never called “bad Jews.” And conversely, what then based on the specious histrionics of this production would be a “good Jew?” Let’s say someone who is decent, sensitive, open to others? I think that sobriquet is mensch, certainly not “good Jew.”
The only direct mention of the “bad Jew” branding comes when Daphna relates that during one Passover, Liam pops a “forbidden” cookie, and impudently proclaims, “I’m a bad Jew.” My reaction is “no, you’re not Liam, because there is no such a thing as a bad Jew.” He may be non-observant, faithless, and contemptuous of his religion, but he is no more a “bad Jew than Melody is a “bad Protestant” when during a critical point in the play, she presents the ugly side of her character. And Liam is not a “bad Jew” for dating a blond shiksa, although just once, I’d love to see any type of a production (television, cinema, theater) where a male Jewish character has an adult, close relationship with a female Jewish character, and blond to boot.
Neither is Daphna a “bad Jew” because of her neurotic obsessions, guilt association, emphases on threats to Jewish survival, Holocaust sensitivities, or delusional bonding with Israel. She with Jonah and his timorous nature and Liam with his cavalier responses are corrosively flawed people which has nothing to do with being “bad Jews.” As one reviewer pointed out last year, a better title would have been “Jews Behaving Badly.”
Growing up Jewish with a distinct Eastern European Ashkenazi influence on my language and expressions, I learned to use the word “bad” (the Yiddish schlect) mostly to describe aberrant or destructive behavior. Something less would be tamped down to a devaluation of “not so good” or “could be better.” With this affinity in mind, I would say upon leaving the “agora” that Harmon is a promising young playwright, but Bad Jews right now could be a better play.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.