Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
If the newly revived Winnipeg Jewish Theatre wanted to come back with a resounding splash, it’s certainly done that with its latest production: “Bad Jews”.
There’s something about relatives gathering together for a shiva that inspires electric dialogue, what with Jonathan Tropper’s novel “This is Where I Leave You” (which was turned into a pretty good film last year) also treading on similar ground as “Bad Jews”.
Interestingly, as I was watching WJT’s excellent production of “Bad Jews”, I kept wondering about the respective backgrounds of Joshua Harmon, the “Bad Jews” playwright, and Tropper. They’re both New Yorkers (although Harmon was born in Massachusetts); Tropper was born in 1970, Harmon in 1971. They’ve both been inspired by their own backgrounds to write about what they know best: Growing up Jewish and, in both “This is Where I Leave You” and “Bad Jews”, an attractive “shiksa” is brought to a shiva by a brother who is on less than good terms with one or more of his relatives. It left me wondering: Is there any other ethnic group that can continually provide such rich material – both comedic and dramatic, that resonates so universally with audiences everywhere?
Not that the almost totally Jewish audience that was watching “Bad Jews” the night I was there wouldn’t be feeling quite uncomfortable watching this particular play. There are more than enough references to stereotypical notions of what it means to be Jewish that would probably arouse anger in anyone who might be tired of those stereotypes. The acerbically foul-mouthed Dafna (played brilliantly by Connie Manfredi), for instance, with her wild mane of hair, plays to the notion that Jewish girls may be short on looks, but they certainly make up for it with their brains.
In contrast with the “won’t shut up” Dafna, we have the pleasant and cutish (although she seemed so awfully young) Melody (played by Andrea Del Campo), who seems to be a few bricks short of a load. (When Dafna comments about the musical note that Melody has tattooed on her leg, Melody explains that she has it to remind herself that she likes music.)
The two male characters – Jonah (played by Kristian Jordan), and his older brother Liam (played by Justin Otto), are, in turns, either totally taken aback by Dafna’s unremitting attacks on Liam or, in the case of Liam, provoked into fighting back just as viciously. Poor Liam, for instance, is forced to defend his and his girlfriend’s honour when all they wanted to do was find a place to bed down for the night before attending Liam’s (and Dafna’s and Jonah’s) late grandfather’s shiva the next day. Could anyone blame him for responding to Dafna’s barbs by making pointed references to, not only the hair on her head, but in other more personal parts of her body as well?
In fact, as I was listening to the increasingly self-righteous Dafna trumpet her superiority over Liam (whom she would often refer to derisively as “Shlomo”, his true birth name), I kept asking myself: “Would non-Jews watching this really think this is what Jewish girls are like?” Again, she reminded me so much of another modern Jewish grade A bitch, “Suzie”, from Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.
If, as Kevin Prokosh noted in his review of “Bad Jews”, it can be compared to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in terms of how a male and female character savage each other, does peeling back the past between two characters ever lead to pleasant memories? While it certainly didn’t engender the kind of incendiary dialogue that pervaded “Bad Jews”, perhaps the best scene was one in which both Dafna and Liam reminisce about a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant that had disastrous consequences. I could have used a few more scenes like that to relieve the tension occasionally.
More than anything though, “Bad Jews” is about coming to terms with Jewish identity in 2015. Dafna harps on her moving to Israel to live an observant life with her Israeli soldier boyfriend Gilad, while Liam is working on his PhD about Japanese culture and is about to propose to Melody (whom Dafna derides as having come from Delaware; in a hilarious segue, she launches into a diatribe against rich WASPs from Delaware). If Dafna is more “Jewish” than Liam, then I think I’d rather be less Jewish and more like Liam, whose essential decency is partly stripped away as a result of his having to defend his – and Melody’s honour, from Dafna’s stinging criticisms.
“Bad Jews” is certainly thought-provoking. Still, I was left wondering whether it resonates differently with non-Jews than Jews. I’d be curious to hear from others on this point.
“Bad Jews” is on at the Berney Theatre until May 17. For ticket information go to www.wjt.ca or call 204-477-7478.