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.

The Weight of Faith and Secrets

On a stormy night, Confederate solider, Captain Caleb DeLeon, returns home (a wonderfully gutted manor designed by Jeffery Stander) shortly after the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox.  He finds the family’s major-domo (and freed slave), Simon, still guarding the house.  Later joined by another former family slave, John, the three men realize it is Passover and have a traditional Jewish seder in which secrets are revealed in Matthew Lopez’s gripping drama, The Whipping Man, now playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Lopez’s script is one of the most thought provoking pieces of drama I’ve seen produced in a very long time.  It asks the audience questions of identity, what it really means to be free and to be a slave, the cost of secrets, and the price of faith.  Director Stephen Nachamie expertly navigates the multiple layers and themes of the show with well paced, skillful direction and has culled some powerful performances from his three actors.

Andy Prescott gives a fine accounting of himself in his debut performance at the Playhouse as Caleb DeLeon.  As DeLeon, Prescott demonstrates a great understanding of the use of body language as his character starts the show with a severely gangrenous left leg.  Every step had the audience wincing with him as he shuddered, gasped, and groaned from the pain.  Prescott is simultaneously sympathetic and unlikable as the former Confederate solider.  In some ways, he is more a slave than Simon and John as he is imprisoned by his culture, his cowardice, and his immaturity.  Yet he also has the soul of a poet and not as ingrained in the mindset of slavery as some of his contemporaries.

Prescott has a wonderful speaking voice which is capable of some very beautiful nuances.  This is especially crucial to his role as DeLeon is confined to a chair for the bulk of the play due to the amputation of his leg. But  I also thought that gift of voice could have been put to better use in some of the more dramatic moments.  A couple of poignant scenes seemed slightly too underplayed  and could have used a wider range of expression and emotion.

As Simon, Carl Brooks demonstrates complete mastery of his craft with a meticulously detailed performance.  Brooks’ presence is incredible as he fills the room with warmness, humility, and humanity.  Brooks’ Simon was brought up in Judaism as part of this household and he is very devout in that faith.  When he realizes that it is Passover, he decides to improvise a Jewish seder (Passover meal) which now means more to him than ever before since he is finally free and now has a true kinship with and understanding of his spiritual brethren on the night of the Exodus.

Brooks’ performance is flawless.  He ably moves from beat to beat, switching between joy, anger, pity, frustration, and concern on the turn of a dime.  Brooks also expertly handles the Hebrew pronunciation and possesses a fine singing voice as demonstrated during the seder.

Luther Simon’s cynically happy-go-lucky essaying of John brought a unique combination of lightness and darkness to the play.  As John, Simon presents a front of being jokey and lackadaisical.  But this front only serves to hide a very deep-seated hatred of his former life as a slave and his sense of betrayal by Caleb during a previous incident with the unseen whipping man.  Although he is now a free man, John is more of a slave than ever.  He is enslaved by  the bottle, by lying, by greed, and he is imprisoned in Richmond due to a life altering choice.  In turns, Simon is amusing and haunting.

Mounting a drama of this type requires a colossal amount of energy on the parts of the actors.  This is especially true for this show as each actor has enough dialogue for a one man show and must work his way through innumerable beats and moments.  This can severely tire a performer and was a bit noticeable in tonight’s show as it took a bit for the actors to really get going and their energy started to flag a bit at the end.  This in no way shortchanged this powerful tale which could be one of the finest dramas mounted this theatre season.

“This is who we are,” says Simon at one point.  And who they are was not determined by what they were born into, but rather by the choices that lead the characters to the climax of this sensational drama.

The Whipping Man will be performed at the Omaha Community Playhouse until November 16.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The show deals with sensitive subject matter and contains some adult language.  It is not recommended for children.  Tickets cost $36 ($22 for students).  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.