Bad Jews at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

Produced by Theater WitTW-Bad-Jews-300x300
 North Shore Center for the Performing Arts
By Joshua Harmon
Directed by Jeremy Wechsler

Bad Jews Makes Good Theater

For the first time in its 11-year history, Theater WIT has transferred a play to a larger venue to continue its outstanding run. Bad Jews, a brilliant, scathing comedy, opened its Chicago premiere on May 4, played to sold-out houses, and now begins another initial run at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie scheduled to continue through July 19. Note the word “initial.” If there is any justice, this play deserves to run for years — or at least until everyone in the Chicago area who appreciates fine, powerful drama has opportunity to see it!
Bad Jews tells the story of the death of a beloved grandfather (Poppy) and how his grandchildren vie for the religious symbol he always wore around his neck — a Chai (made up of Hebrew letters which signify the word Life). Early foreshadowing’s lead to a final revelation — the unique history of this piece of jewelry, amazingly preserved throughout the holocaust.

The structure of Joshua Harmon’s drama and the unfolding of his plot are brilliant — matched by the extraordinary skills of the actors. Ian Paul Custer and Laura Lapidus, as cousins Liam and Daphna, dominate the story, alternating long, vituperative speeches against each other’s claims. Daphna bases her reasoning on her religious devotion. She is a Vassar student, eager to move to Israel and study for the Rabbinate. Liam, a University of Chicago scholar far more interesting studying Japanese than Hebrew culture, is an atheist, motivated entirely by the love he feels for his girlfriend. He parallels this relationship with his grandparents’ love affair and marriage.
What makes their heated approaches so extraordinary are that each speaks from both an emotional and reasonable core of validity, causing the audience to shift allegiances with the rise and fall of each violently argued, unyielding monologue, brimming with toxic personal attacks. Throughout, no holds are barred, characters are revealed — warts and all. And these revelations uncover larger issues — what it means to be Jewish — and, far more important, what it means to be human.
Supporting them — and undercutting all the anger — are Cory Kahane as Liam’s calm brother Jonah (who wants to remain uninvolved) and sweet, blond, blue-eyed Erica Bittner as Liam’s somewhat ditsy Christian girlfriend Melody. One outstanding moment is when Daphne cruelly teases Melody into revealing her failings as an opera student, and she stops the show with her hilarious yet somehow haunting flawed rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.
The four young adults are caged in the only available housing — a small apartment — the evening after the funeral, awaiting the beginning of the days of mourning (shiva) to begin the next day. Tension among them is palpable and fluctuating as victims and victors fluidly shift positions.
You needn’t be Jewish — good bad or indifferent — to enjoy the play. Being human is more than sufficient.
Who deserves the Chai? Each does. Who finally gets it? You must see the play to find out. But even better is a different discovery that unfolds in the last three minutes of the play — unexpected and perfect, leaving the audience breathless. Wow!

Beverly Friend, Ph.D.
American Critics Assn.

North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, 847-673-6300, Tickets $20-58. 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. (No shows Saturday July 4 or Friday July 10) until July 19. Run time 75 minutes, no intermission.