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With a provocative title like Bad Jews, playwright Joshua Harmon is clearly inviting the audience to judge which of his characters fit that desciption.
The American playwright, who made his first big splash with this caustic comedy in 2012, introduces three young-adult cousins who have gathered together in a New York City apartment after the death of their beloved grandfather. Each represents a familiar way to be Jewish in the contemporary world and Harmon -- in his compact tale's Canadian première, presented by the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre -- doesn't make it too easy to decide who is really failing the faith.
Bad Jews, with its take-no-prisoners humour, takes a hard look at the current Jewish identity and its impact on the future. It has a real edge that will attract a younger demographic, but that abrasiveness might not be welcome by longtime WJT patrons. At times, the cruelty is breathtaking, as is the language.
After the funeral, in the studio apartment his well-heeled parents bought for him and his brother Liam, Jonah is playing video games when his pushy cousin begins lobbying to inherit their grandfather's golden chai medallion, a symbol of life, love and his survival during the Holocaust.
Diana, a Vassar student, claims to be the rightful heir, given the fanatical ardour with which she has embraced her Jewishness. Choosing to go by her Hebrew name, Daphna, she plans to continue her rabbinical studies in Israel, where she will join the army and marry her soldier fiancé.
The "intensely intense" Daphna knows how to overpower doormat Jonah and get what she wants, whether that be his renouncing any claim to the sacred memento or all the pillows he grabs to protect himself from her advances.
Then domineering younger brother Liam and his blond shiksa girlfriend, Melody, arrive from Aspen, where they were skiing. He lost his cellphone on the ski lift and missed the funeral -- further evidence, says Daphna, of his disdain for his religion and culture.
The hissing cousins clash and the family feud is on. The savage, scorched-earth arguing brings to mind plays with verbal firepower as recent as God of Carnage or as far back as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? These two know how to push each other's buttons and never stop. She needles him for rejecting his Hebrew name, Shlomo, and castigates him for becoming totally assimilated and rubbing it in by doing his master's degree on contemporary Japanese youth culture. She believes Liam is a bad Jew who is not worthy of the chai.
He pushes back vehemently, accusing her of being "this little ºber-Jew, lording her fanaticism over everyone." He even suggests that she uses faith to bolster her self-worth and that her boyfriend is probably make-believe.
Daphna does not come across as very likable either, as she carries out an all-out assault, dressed up as friendly curiosity, on the defenceless Melody, who has to answer for being from Delaware.
Director Kayla Gordon has assembled a fearless cast of University of Winnipeg graduates up for the vocal violence. The pace is brisk, although there are a couple of scenes that could use more snap.
Connie Manfredi's Daphna is a spitfire with a corona of curls trailing behind her. She exudes all of Daphna's natural pugnacity and obstinance, but what's missing is a clear glimpse of the source of her venom.
Justin Otto offers a sweet and sour Liam, who wants to follow his love for Melody and carry on a romantic family tradition, when he's not engaging in insanely angry rants.
Andrea del Campo brings a simple decency to fish-out-of-water Melody, a gentle gentile whose performance of Summertime made everyone in the opening-night crowd squirm. As Jonah, Kristian Jordan has the fewest lines and tries to keep his character's head down during the verbal crossfire, though he still manages to communicate that there is more to him.
Is Harmon saying all three self-absorbed cousins are bad Jews? Daphna is a pious narcissist, Liam is a devout assimilationist and fence-sitting Jonah is lacking because he won't take a side and make a stand. The playwright keeps us guessing and offers no easy answers, although through Daphna, he foresees a dark future for the faith: "When it's gone, it's gone."
How you view the characters is almost like a Rorschach test, in which you'll see what you want to see.