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Grief and wit, heritage and family dynamics collide in 'Bad Jews' at American Stage

Photo by Beth Reynolds Matt Acquard plays Jonah, a solid family anchor reeling after the death of his grandpa, and Jenny Lester plays his sharp cousin Diana in Bad Jews.
Photo by Beth Reynolds Matt Acquard plays Jonah, a solid family anchor reeling after the death of his grandpa, and Jenny Lester plays his sharp cousin Diana in Bad Jews.
Published Jul. 17, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Whatever else he learned at Cornell University and the Juilliard School, playwright Joshua Harmon surely learned family dynamics. His play, Bad Jews, bristles with wit and malevolence dished out by people for whom familiarity breeds contempt.

The show, which opened in 2013, went on to become the third most produced play in the United States. Harmon, 35, has emerged as one of the most important young voices in theater, and with this show it's easy to see why. It's hard to think of any play that accomplishes more, in less time.

American Stage has tackled the piece, directed by Amy Resnick. The title, which has put off some, makes the most sense as a simple replication of a self-deprecating expression among Jewish people rather than something said of Jews by outsiders. Familiarity means everything for four players in this viciously dark and brilliant slice of life, a life we literally see into via Stephen Mitchell 's angular set depicting a sloppily functional, pricey condo on Riverside Drive. They gather here, in young Jonah's spare apartment, for the funeral of Poppy, the family patriarch and heroic Holocaust survivor. The closely set apartment, where four 20-somethings will bunk, stops only at the edge of the stage, as if we are looking into it, eavesdropping on intimate conversations.

Before it's over, we will have learned what these characters think of what it means to be Jewish; what part of that identity must necessarily tie into religious faith (or not); and what they think of each other. Its taut structure makes use of what psychologists would call "dyads," pairings family members make to form bonds, keep secrets or execute deals. Here's a quick rundown.

Diana-Jonah: Diana (who also uses her Hebrew name, Daphna), wields her smarts and observational skills like a lethal weapon. Without Jenny Lester in this role, this wouldn't be the same play. She gets the character's stream-of-consciousness humor and blunt honesty in a way that sets the pace for the show. She is also its primary engine of conflict. Jonah, her younger cousin, is reeling from the loss of his grandfather and wants to stay out of family conflicts. Matt Acquard had a hard job playing a soft-spoken character, a solid family anchor who delivers the show's biggest surprise. While this portrayal is a bit on the bland side, Acquard does nothing to interfere with the action.

Jonah-Liam: Jonah's brother Liam arrives, having missed the funeral altogether. Jackson Goldberg turns in a ruthlessly funny performance as the erudite but merciless Liam, Diana's antagonist in a war over who deserves Poppy's gold and diamond necklace, or chai.

Liam-Melody: Liam has brought along a girlfriend, a blonde Gentile or shiksa. Kate Berg stands apart from the other three in every conceivable way, so much so that the others are tempted to discount her humanity. It's a solid performance of someone who can be underestimated, someone who can and will be tested as the conflict intensifies.

Jonah-Melody: These characters rarely speak to each other yet stand as bookends to the primary conflict between Diana and Liam; each would like to stay out of the fight.

Irreconcilable ideas also clash. Can Jews who want to preserve their bloodlines be accused of nativism, even racism? Diana defends that desire. "How does your half-Jewish daughter teach her one-quarter Jewish daughter to be Jewish?" she asks Liam. "Exactly how does that work?"

Harmon at times relies too heavily on monologue, composing a lot of gleaming speeches that don't resemble real life. The end also comes abruptly after a moment of peak calamity, so a sudden 90-degree turn is a little hard to take in. This showing did not make the most of a supremely powerful moment. But compared to the show's execution overall, these are minor points. If you're not sure about any part, go back and see it again. I will probably do exactly that, for pleasure this time.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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