The High Holy Days may coincide with the beginning of the new theater season, but rarely do the two dovetail so neatly as they do in Joshua Elias Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” a play about two cousins fighting over the Chai necklace of their just-deceased grandfather. Directed by Daniel Aukin, the play starts previews in early October at the Roundabout Underground. Just as Jews finish up their annual process of introspection, the play asks piercing questions about what it means to forsake one’s heritage — and if one person’s embrace is another’s betrayal.
“Bad Jews” takes place on the Upper West Side, in the apartment of frizzy-haired, opinionated Daphna Feygenbaum (Tracee Chimo), where she and her taciturn cousin Jonah (Philip Ettinger) have just returned home after the funeral of their grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor. The sparks start to fly when Jonah’s free-wheelinging brother, Liam (Michael Zegen) arrives with his meek non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody (Molly Ranson), upon whom he is planning to bestow the Chai necklace as a sign of their engagement. This enrages Daphna, who has an Israeli boyfriend and who is planning to make aliyah; she claims ownership of the necklace for herself and views her cousin as a traitor to Judaism.
Harmon grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in upstate Rye Brook. His first published work was a poem that he wrote for a Jewish Week contest; he went on to study drama at Northwestern University and to earn a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon. While his play, “Love in the Time of Channukah,” was performed at the Hangar Theater in Ithaca in 2009, “Bad Jews” marks his New York debut.
The seed for “Bad Jews” was planted, Harmon said, when he attended a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in college that featured the grandchildren of survivors. Harmon was dismayed by hearing the perspective of those who experienced the Holocaust in such an indirect way. “It was totally unmoving. The grandchildren looked and sounded like me; they didn’t have an accent, and they didn’t bear witness to anything.”
The cousins in the play are also working through the process of developing their relationship to Jewish history and heritage, although they are two generations removed from both the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. They are, the playwright said, “looking up from the bottom of their family tree.” They need to resolve questions about their grandfather’s legacy, including “what the legacy is, who has the right to carry it, and how well-equipped they are to do so.” Harmon said that he expects the audience members to “take sides pretty quickly” in this battle between the characters.
While a committed or pious Jew might be very offended by being called a “bad Jew,” Harmon noted that secular Jews, like Liam in the play, use it jokingly as a “badge of pride” before they eat non-kosher food or commit other violations of Jewish law. The term can thus take on almost antithetical meanings depending on context. But even those “bad Jews” who have strayed far from religious observance (as the playwright himself has done) use the term precisely because they continue to wrestle with what Judaism means to them. “They’re inadvertently still identifying or acknowledging what they are, were and came from.”
“Bad Jews” begins previews on Oct. 5, opens on Oct. 30, and runs through Dec. 30 at the Roundabout Underground, 111 W. 46th St. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. For tickets, $20, call the box office at (212) 719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.
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