By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
photo by Patrick McArdle
Living through more family conflict are (from L) Shira Maaas, Jeremy Vega and Beth May.
Thanks to that Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” we all know how the Jewish people feel about tradition. Apparently, today's generation hasn't embraced the old ways quite so warmly.
Probably that's typical of young people world-wide, but playwright Joshua Harmon brings the point home with a vicious smack in his 90-minute pile driver on family values, “Bad Jews.”
Kevin Johnson as director has filled his quartet of players with a relentless anger that practically puts this production into the punk-rock theater category.
There's no music being played, but everybody is shouting at everybody else like thrash metal guitarists, shredding viewpoints and personalities along the way.
Shira Maas is out front as Vassar student Daphna Feygenbaum, a brilliant young woman enraptured with her Jewish roots. So much so that she wants to move to Israel, study with a vegan female rabbi and join the military.
That might sound like satire, but the full ensemble here is deadly serious about everything that's happening on stage. Daphna was christened Diana but has also taken her traditional Jewish name as an important part of her transformation.
As the play opens, their beloved grandfather Poppy has died and after the funeral Daphna is staying with her wealthy cousin Jonah (Luka Vonier) whose parents have given him this Manhattan apartment with its view of the Hudson River. Jonah is so used to being rich he doesn't think much about this gift.
Daphna, however, can't forget it.
Soon to arrive are Jonah's older brother Liam (Jeremy Vega) and Liam's blond gentile girlfriend Melody (Beth May) who majored in opera.
Liam has no interest in being a good Jew. He'd rather not be any kind of Jew. Just being a good person is difficult enough. And anyway, traditional Japanese culture is much more interesting.
Melody seems to think Judaism is something like life on another planet. Just like the Earth kids in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” Melody hopes that if she is just nice to these three cousins from a different world, everything will be just fine.
It isn't, of course.
All four actors pour themselves into their roles, maintaining a tight ensemble energy that burns its way through the comedy moments meant to lighten the mental load. There is some laughter, but the agitation is just more powerful than the humor.
Then we realize what's at stake is the inheritance of Poppy's gold “chai” on a gold chain to represent the Hebrew symbol for “life.” This medallion is especially powerful because Poppy kept the medallion hidden under his tongue when he was a prisoner in the Holocaust death camps.
It literally was Poppy's life and now Daphna believes she deserves to have it passed on to her because her Jewish faith is the strongest.
However, Liam believes Poppy wanted the medallion to be Liam's, and he is very much in love with Melody. Will she be the one to be given this treasure as an engagement ring?
While a good bit of the play is taken up with establishing the four conflicted personalities, particularly the rabid rivalry between Daphna and Liam, by the time we get to the final 30 minutes, it feels like they are all trying to douse the fire of disagreement by pouring on more gasoline.
“Bad Jews” runs through May 22 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, in the Cabaret Space at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $27.50, with discounts available.
For details and reservations, 882-6574 or visit arizonaonstage.org