Above: The ‘Bad Jews’ ensemble, from left, Hillel Rosenshine, Nora Eschenheimer, Sarah Corey, and John Hardin. Photo courtesy of The Gamm Theatre
It was a bold move for The Gamm Theatre to stage Bad Jews, a play by Joshua Harmon, in 2023. The title is, well, provocative during a time of ascendant anti-Semitism. There were in fact protesters outside the theater Sunday afternoon decrying the Bad Jews sign on Jefferson Boulevard.*
There’s a line in the play, written in 2012, that refers to “now” being the safest time to be a Jew. That reality has been shattered in recent years.
But the title is kind of the point. This acidly comic play runs head first into the tropes of being a Jew in the 21st century, with cousins Liam (whose Hebrew name is Shlomo), the fully assimilated Jew who is more comfortable studying Japanese culture than thinking about his own cultural heritage, much less embracing it, and Daphna (who’s given name is Diana) the “super Jew,” who is planning to move to Israel and join the Israeli Army so she can fully inhabit her Judaism. In the middle are Jonah, Liam’s brother, and Melody, Liam’s girlfriend.
Directed by Tony Estrella, the Gamm’s artistic director, the play is set in a studio apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan (with a view of the Hudson River from the bathroom!), after the funeral of the cousins’ grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. Liam has missed the funeral all together, after dropping his cell phone on a faraway ski lift, not getting the news until it was too late to get to New York in time. Daphna is enraged by her cousin’s failure, first berating Jonah, then Liam himself when he finally arrives with the sweet Melody by his side.
While the play is explicitly about Jewish identity, the themes of grief and inheritance are universal.
The real issue for the warring cousins is the certainty that they each deserve their grandfather’s golden chai pendant (chai is the Hebrew word for life). Jonah, meanwhile, only wants to be left out of the arguing, despite repeated attempts by both his brother and his cousin to pull him into the fray. Jonah and Melody, who barely interact with each other, are stand-ins for the appalled audience. Liam and Daphna may be grieving but they are wholly unlikeable as well.
The character of Daphna as played by Sarah Corey fills the stage with her presence, flopping down here or there, cajoling, scolding, judging, hugging – a big personality in a small space. She reminded this viewer of Barbara Streisand in What’s Up, Doc?, the classic movie comedy with Ryan O’Neal. She’s funny. You want to tell her to chill. But of course she can’t chill.
John Hardin’s Liam is colder and seems a bit mercenary, except when he’s doting on Melody. As played by Nora Schenheimer, Melody is an unguarded innocent in a room where you really should be on your guard. Yet, at a pivotal moment near the end of the play, she finds her voice.
Jonah, played by Hillel Rosenshine, is the play’s enigma. Has he been browbeaten by these family members for so long he’s just given up? Or perhaps this is what real grief looks like. He seems truly distraught.
Naturally, it comes down to a fight over that chai. No surprise: there are no winners in that particular battle.
*According to protester Howard Brown, a member of the Rhode Island Coalition for Israel, “We are here because of that sign. That sign is a problem because it normalizes right now at a time of spiking anti-Semitism and violence on Jews the idea that Jews are bad.” Gamm’s Tony Estrella spoke to the audience before the show, saying he welcomes all forms of free expression, including those outside and inside the theater.