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'Bad Jews' Is Good News For The Geffen Playhouse

Ryan Brophy |
June 19, 2015 | 3:05 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

"Summertime, and the livin' is easy…"

Or so it seems, until the Geffen Playhouse's goldmine production of "Bad Jews" by Joshua Harmon kicks off our summer by resurfacing all of our memories of dysfunctional family, cultural strife, and the disastrous blend of the two. Poor Melody (USC alum Lili Fuller) is a class-A blonde ditz forced to showcase her slipshod operatic training through the Gershwin tune by her Jewish harpy of a cousin-in-law, Daphna Feygenbaum (a splendidly shrill Molly Ephraim). Melody's fiancé Liam (Ari Brand) and his younger brother Jonah (Raviv Ullman) can merely watch in horror as Daphna revels in her perceived Jewish superiority over Melody's tone-deaf, WASPy mess. It is one of the countless moments in the roller-coaster 100-minute show in which the house is filled with deafening laughter, both at the ridiculousness of the situation and at the intelligence with which Harmon has crafted his piece to raise so many key questions regarding progressive identity and tradition.

The cast of "Bad Jews" at the Geffen. Photo by Mark Garvin.
The cast of "Bad Jews" at the Geffen. Photo by Mark Garvin.

You see, Melody gladly and voluntarily sings in a charming, but futile, attempt to win over her hostess and make an impression on her soon-to-be family. But Daphna will have none of it. With her beloved grandfather (Papi) recently deceased, Daphna seizes the resulting family mini-reunion for the funeral as the ideal opportunity to fling her staunchly-orthodox Jewish views and devout practices in all of their faces. Jonah and Melody admirably take the never-ending tirades with a grain of salt, but it's Daphna's cousin Liam who takes the bull by the horns and decimates her argument with his own worldview. He is a left-wing atheist working on his master's degree in Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of Chicago and missed the funeral when he dropped his iPhone in the snow in Aspen - which Daphna uses as the perfect metaphor to convey Liam's ineptitude as a proper Jewish man.

The stakes are raised even higher when she implores Liam and Jonah to allow her - as the most spiritually observant member of the family - to inherit Papi's "chai," a ring and heirloom which Papi miraculously kept while he suffered years in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Unbeknownst to Daphna, Papi passed the chai on to his daughter, Liam's mother, who then mailed it to Liam so that he could propose to Melody with it. The stage is consequently set up as a battlefield 

between two sides of the Jewish spectrum; Daphna inhabits the innate, the spiritual, the traditional and the cultural, while Liam fights back with the progressive, the practical, the social, and the political. The two each marvel at the other's apparent ignorance and close-minded perspectives, and launch into several gargantuan, vitriolic, and utterly uproarious filibusters against each other in order to discredit, dismantle, and destroy.

But it is these very speeches which reveal how closely Daphna and Liam are cut from the same cloth. Neither can stand the other. Neither have any modicum of respect for the milieu that the other has chosen to occupy with his or her world. But one thing is common between the two of them: they're Jewish. Unchangeably, invariably, authentically, BADLY Jewish. And the questions that Harmon raises are big, palpable ones. In a time like today, when it is historically the best time ever to be Jewish, why should we let that identity go? Yet at the same time, where do we draw the line between the Judaism that has always existed and the Judaism that we must pass on to future generations in a vast, volatile planet such as this? How do we, as Jews, handle the responsibility of cradling this largely forsaken identity knowing that we are the only ones who truly understand it? Through Matt Shakman's confident, insightful direction, the audience walks out of the theatre feeling the entirety of the burden that Daphna and Liam have unsuccessfully tried to resolve.

Raviv Ullman and Molly Ephraim. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Raviv Ullman and Molly Ephraim. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The entire cast handles the complexity and smartness of the play with a collective quickness of a whip. Ephraim and Brand have it out with such charisma, wit, and intelligence that while we want to throttle Daphna, we also want to whack Liam on the head and wake him up from his pretentious stupor. Fuller quite seamlessly serves as both a support system for Liam and a provocateur for Daphna, though hilariously aloof to both of her roles as the girl who's just not quite all there. And Ullman, known as the title character in Disney's now-archived "Phil of the Future," takes the cake as Jonah, the little brother who just wants to go to bed, but knows his take on things from the moment we first meet him. He doesn't say much, but his final moments in the play speak louder volumes than any of the debauchery we've witnessed thus far.

Quite expectedly, the play is loud. But not just in the literal sense. It has a voice which permeates all the way to the rear balcony of the Geffen, a voice which has been overwhelmingly silenced by history and of which we are begged to become increasingly aware. Nobody in the family may receive any good news over the course of the intermissionless hour and forty minutes on stage, but we as an audience receive the best news that we can possibly get: no matter what form it takes, and no matter how much it may be opposed, the Jewish voice will continue to live. It is our responsibility not to exacerbate it or to modify it, but simply to acknowledge it and appreciate it as a driving force in the shaping of the world around us. And we should stop kvetching while we're at it.

"Bad Jews" runs through July 19 in the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse (10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024). Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8:00pm, Saturday at 3:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm and 7:00pm. Tickets range from $39-$79 and can be purchased in person, online at www.geffenplayhouse.com, or by phone at (310) 208-5454. Fees may apply.

To reach Staff Reporter Ryan Brophy, click here.

For more Theater and Dance coverage, click here.



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