Family Warfare Provides Strange Synergy of Heart and Humor

A long standing grudge between cousins Daphna and Liam boils over into warfare over who gets the chai necklace owned by their late grandfather.  They violently and cruelly argue about what is most important:  faith, culture, or self.  This is the plot of Bad Jews currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Do not let the title of the play trick you into thinking the play is anti-Semitic.  The bad Jews in question are just bad because one is a hypocrite, the other is an atheist, and neither are likable people.

Susan Clement-Toberer’s direction is outstanding in this dramatic comedy.  Not only has she molded some sharp performances, but she has also done a remarkable job finding the beats of this play.  From farcical comedy to tender moments, this show will take you on a thought provoking journey from start to finish.  Throw in a beautiful studio apartment set designed by Martin Scott Marchitto and you will be in for an interesting night of theatre.

Megan Friend is an absolute dynamo as Daphna Feygenbaum.  Deftly merging comedy and drama, Ms Friend knows how to be funny, yet keep the comedy utterly grounded in reality.  At the same time, she was capable of some powerful dramatic moments.  Ms Friend’s Daphna is little more than a mouth with hair.  She is unbelievably animated and talks incessantly about everything, anything, and nothing.  Daphna also has a personality so obnoxious that you’ll want to scream, “Shut up!!” five minutes after she starts talking.

But Daphna’s mouth is also a deadly weapon.  Her barbed tongue easily tosses verbal knives and she knows how to prey upon people’s weaknesses such as when she cons Liam’s girlfriend, Melody, into singing a song to prove her lack of talent.  Ms Friend’s Daphna seems to pride herself on her Jewish heritage, but that pride is akin to the Pharisees of the New Testament.  It holds no meaning for her other than the chance to prove her moral superiority by being holier than thou.  And this holier than thou attitude is why she thinks she deserves the chai necklace.

Jonathan Purcell portrays Liam Feygenbaum.  Having missed his grandfather’s funeral due to being on a vacation with his girlfriend, Purcell’s Liam returns dreading the fight that he knows is about to erupt when he learns that Daphna wants the chai necklace that he already possesses.  Purcell’s Liam is an extremely high strung person.  He dislikes Daphna with a passion with much of that dislike coming from the fact that he and Daphna are simply two sides of the same coin.  Not only do they use similar phrases, but his mouth is just as potent as hers when it comes to verbal barbs.  And his militant atheism serves as a counterpoint to Daphna’s militant “faith”.

I thought that Mr. Purcell’s performance somewhat missed the mark.  At one point, Daphna describes Liam as being smart and smug, but I never saw these attributes come through in Purcell’s interpretation.  He was more high strung and shrill.  Purcell also seemed to have some difficulty fusing the comedic and dramatic elements of his character.  A prime example of this being a rant that Liam goes on after Daphna leaves the room to brush her hair.  The words are incredibly mean-spirited, but Purcell’s interpretation is farcically hilarious.  With a touch of dramatic edge, the words could have dug the knife into Daphna a bit more deeply and demonstrated Liam’s smugness.  Without that fusion, Liam came off a bit whiney.

Jon Daniel Roberson gives a stunningly underplayed performance as Liam’s younger brother, Jonah.  Roberson’s Jonah is the voice of reason between his feuding family members.  He has a quiet strength about him as he takes the occasional shot from both his brother and cousin, but, with true courage, chooses not to respond.  He tries not to get involved in the battle as he agrees with both sides in certain aspects of their arguments.  In a stunning final moment, Roberson’s Jonah also proves that he is the good Jew in this story.  The only flaw in Roberson’s performance is that he needs to be louder.  It was difficult hearing him for a good portion of the play.

Sydney Readman comes off a little flat as Liam’s girlfriend, Melody.  Some of her line readings sounded memorized and her character seemed a bit one dimensional for the most part.  However, her utter mangling of a song in an attempt to cheer up Daphna was one of the highlights of the show.  Ms Readman also does a nice bit of character work at the end of the show after she gets involved in the climax of the chai necklace argument and reveals her own true colors.

Ultimately, the play’s compelling story, flawless direction, and fairly solid acting makes for a fine night of theatre.  Daphna’s hypocrisy and Liam’s smugness show how faith or lack of it can be used to make people feel morally superior.  But one simple act from Jonah will demonstrate what it means to be truly faithful.

Bad Jews plays at the Blue Barn Theatre through March 14.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  Shows on Feb 28 and Mar 7 are sold out.  Bad Jews contains some very strong language and a scene of violence.  It is not recommended for children.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1575.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 614 S 11th St in Omaha, NE.

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