THE BASICS: BAD JEWS, a four person play, running 90 minutes without intermission, is at the intimate but extremely comfortable Maxine & Robert Seller Theatre housed inside the (“Amherst”) Jewish Community Center, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville, NY 14208. If Getzville sounds far away, by using some combination of routes 90, 190, 290, and “the” 990 to exit 3, it’s actually only 18 to 22 minutes from almost anywhere in Buffalo. Thursdays at 7:30 (with “talk-backs” after those performances); Saturdays at both 4 and 8, and Sundays at 2, through Sunday February 28. Call 716-688-4114 x391 for reservations; visit www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: On the evening of the funeral of their beloved “Poppy,” a Holocaust survivor, his three 20-something grandchildren (two brothers and their cousin) plus one non-Jewish girlfriend, end up crammed into a studio apartment in Manhattan, where cousins Daphna Feygenbaum, the ostensibly more devout Jew, and Liam Haber, a less observant Jew, verbally attack each other to the dismay of Liam’s girlfriend (soon to be fiancé) Melody and Liam’s younger brother Jonah. Whether or not they are “bad Jews,” the two cousins are certainly “Jews behaving badly.” The immediate controversy is over who will inherit a religious pendant (the chai) which their grandfather hid under his tongue for two years while in a concentration camp. While there is dramatic tension, and many larger issues are explored, and the ending will have you saying “I did not see that coming,” it’s a comedy, and there were a number of laugh lines throughout which the audience certainly enjoyed.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION
BAD JEWS is very well acted and very well directed by Steve Vaughan. Vaughan, a professional theatrical fight director, who most recently directed an all-male cast in TWELFTH NIGHT for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, knows how to place his actors and effectively used the square studio apartment set like a boxing ring. We learned in the talk-back that Vaughan, who is not Jewish, went into the production with a workshop-minded openness, and with (Jewish) Assistant Director Adam Yellen and all four members of the cast (only one of whom is Jewish) frankly discussed every element of the play – what is funny and what is insulting, what is cultural identity and what is stereotyping.
I am not Jewish, but a friend of mine who is said that he wasn’t interested in seeing the play because there are so few Jews involved. I would quote from the JRT MISSION on page two of the playbill: “The Jewish Repertory Theatre is theatre for everyone.” Or, to paraphrase the old advertising slogan “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Levi’s Rye Bread,” you don’t have to be Jewish to act in or be an audience at the JRT.
Arin Lee Dandes plays Daphna Feygenbaum, a young woman who wears her Jewishness on her sleeve, pronouncing chai (life) with a full Hebrew guttural “ch” and saying that she’s going to “eez-ry-ELL” to be with her kibbutzim boyfriend. Like most bullies, inside she is soft and vulnerable, and when attacked herself, is openly hurt. Although young in years, Arin is an experienced WNY actress with many solid credits, and she brings her “A” game to this performance. And she has some great lines, for example referring to her cousin’s former third-world, non-Jewish girlfriend as “your Peace Corps whore.”
Adam Rath plays her cousin Liam Haber, and they are like a match and gasoline. As much as Adam’s seemingly casual acceptance of his Jewish heritage and his desire to assimilate into the mainstream culture (he has just returned from snowboarding in Aspen with his tall, blond, non-Jewish girlfriend) annoys Daphna, her “holier than thou” behavior, not to mention her incessant combing of her kinky hair, drives him close to violence. He does rage well. And has some great lines, too, including shouting at Daphna “Don’t Holocaust me” and “Keeping the [Jewish] race pure? You sound like a Nazi.”
But, the cousins both want to inherit the same chai pendant that belonged to Poppy. She because it will affirm her faithful adherence to Jewish law and culture; he because Poppy used the pendant to propose to grandma, and now Liam wants it to propose to his shicksa girlfriend. You can imagine how thrilled Daphna is with that idea.
Jamie Nablo as Melody (no last name, but when asked by Daphna about her heritage, says that she’s from Delaware) has a solid background in WNY theaters, and plays the “outsider” with a calm and consistent performance. Well done.
And Nick Stevens as Jonah Haber, always being pushed to take sides, which he refuses to do, is equally very effective. Like Nablo, he takes on this tough role of being the eye of the hurricane without losing focus or energy. Also well done.
The theater, as noted above, is very accessible via car from anywhere in Buffalo with plenty of convenient parking. Within half an hour you can leave home and be in your seat. And what seats! Ahhh. Nice and wide and comfortable. While not a true “theater in the round” (it’s more like three quarters) it has the same intimate feeling of the Irish Classical theater in that every seat is “the best seat in the house.”
All of the crew did a great job – costuming, music, set, etcetera. My one small quibble would be the religious pendant, the chai prop. It was much too shiny to be believable as a gold family heirloom. Given the central importance of that item to the play, I might suggest “aging” it a little.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!