Saturday, October 24, 2015

page to stage: Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon

The backstory: After taking a few years off, Mr. Nomadreader and I have resubscribed to season tickets for StageWest, a local "bold, cutting-edge, contemporary theater." This year I had the brilliant idea to read each of the plays before seeing them. The first play of the season was Bad Jews.  I promptly got the play from the library, went on vacation for a week and a half, came home to remember our tickets were for the next day, and managed to pick it up to read only after seeing the play.

The basics: Bad Jews take place in a studio apartment in New York City after a funeral. Its four characters are brothers Liam and Jonah, their cousin Daphna, and Liam's girlfriend Melody.

My thoughts: Over the years, I've realized I appreciate plays (and films and television shows) with a writer's dialogue. Meaning: I'm okay with art being more eloquent and faster paced than those people would actually speak in life. Bad Jews has this dialogue throughout. At times the pace seems relentless--there are so many ideas and emotions flying that as I watched the play, I found myself wishing for a pause button. Later, as I read the play, I was able to pause, but I found that such a reading took me out of the moment's emotion.

My favorite character in the performance was Daphna. I guessed she wasn't supposed to be likable, but I found her enchanting. She is the perfect representation of a 22-year-old college senior who thinks she's completely comfortable embracing her identity. When I read the play, I wasn't as drawn to the character, so clearly Rachel Salowitz's performance was even better than I originally realized.

The play is smart and funny, but it's also laced with personal digs that will make you wince. Cousins can fight hard, and here they do. At issue: who will inherit the grandfather's chai, an artifact whose full import isn't initially known. Surrounding this debate are so many questions about what it means to be Jewish, both religiously and by identity. Harmon also infuses discussions of class, politics and family. There's a lot going on, but it never feels like too much.

The verdict: Having seen the play before I read it, I found I enjoyed the performance more. Perhaps if I read it first, as I intended, that wouldn't be the case. In this case, it's the performance that will stay with me, but the words of Harmon made me think and made me feel. I'll keep contemplating the play's themes for quite some time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (performance: 4.5 out of 5)
Length: 66 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Bad Jews from Amazon. Want more? Check out this video of the StageWest cast discussing the play and rehearsing.

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