Bad Jews Promises More than Just Jews Behaving Badly for Gallery Players 66th Season Opener
Purportedly, Joshua Harmon’s 2012 play, Bad Jews, is about just that: Jews behaving badly. But ask any of the four-member ensemble cast of twenty-something actors if their characters are “bad,” and the unexpected results—much like the play itself.
Each of the players—Daniel Shtivelberg and Jordan Berman as brothers, Liam and Jonah, respectively; Paula Shtein as cousin Daphna; and Kelly Hogan as girlfriend Melody—believe their character, while morally flawed, has good intentions. It is in their straight-faced belief that they are right and the others are wrong that the comedy is borne.
“From each character’s perspective, they all have different, valid reasons for their behavior. When looked at from afar, though, they look selfish and petty, which makes for great comedy,” explained Jared Saltman, Gallery Players Managing and Artistic Director.
Saltman is excited to kick off the lauded theater troupe’s 66th season with an Ohio premiere of an off-Broadway hit that takes the term “dark comedy” to a whole new, uncomfortable level. That’s because “good comedy is often predicated upon being uncomfortable,” he added. “It’s that, ‘Omigosh, I can’t believe she just said that,’ kind of uncomfortable that I think audiences will find entertaining.” Gallery Players will stage the witty play intended for adult audiences beginning September 6 with a three-week run ending September 21.
Through the play’s back and forth sparring over who will keep their recently deceased grandfather’s Chai necklace (which, along with their grandfather, survived the Holocaust), it becomes apparent that behind the comedy is the story of how each of them is figuring out who they are and what kind of Jew they are going to be.
Shtivelberg’s Liam represents the current dilemma facing today’s assimilated Jews. He is drifting away from the Jewish faith and considering marrying outside it, but wants to be culturally connected to Judaism. Shtivelberg has been in several recent productions, most recently the Actors’ Theatre’s Barber of Seville and last fall’s Gallery Players production of Yentl. He defends his character: “He’s a good person underneath it all. He’s loving, smart, he cares for his family. Unfortunately, the circumstances of the situation just get in the way.”
Cousins Liam and Daphna fight over the Chai, but each represent the opposite ends of the spectrum of Jewish identity. Daphna is religiously devout, while Liam is secular. “This idea of Jewish identity is really important. This is something that all Jews at the very least think about, perhaps struggle with,” said Daniel Shtivelberg.
“And it’s this whole conversation of culture versus globalization and sort of losing that culture. It’s important to me, too, to keep that culture,” explained Shtein, who, as an incoming freshman at Capital University, is just beginning to see how complicated keeping her Jewish identity might be in her college setting. “With me personally, with being Jewish, now that I’m going off to college, the question of dating and whether I’ll only date Jewish guys has come up. And that’s something that I think Daphna and I have in common.”
The play offers no easy answers to the question of how to maintain Jewish identity in a globalized world. “It’s a very personal question,” noted Jordan Berman, who plays Jonah. “The characters argue over what is important or appealing about Judaism, and I believe the way for Judaism to survive is if it has personal meaning, if individual Jews can articulate or at least feel a reason they want to keep it going for the next generation.”
Berman, as an international human rights lawyer, is no stranger to debate. The veteran actor enjoys playing the more complex role. “Jonah’s struggling just as much as anyone in the play, but it’s a lot more internal, which makes him a more complicated character.” Berman tends to play sympathetic characters with a hint of crazy, most recently as Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap (Jerusalem), and Billy Bibbitt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Brandeis University).
Shtein, who recently played Chava in Gallery Players’ award-winning 2013 production of Fiddler on the Roof, relishes her role as the equally misunderstood, Daphna. “She has these really mean moments, but she just speaks her mind. I’ve come to really like that about her. She stands up for what she believes in. She’s not always right, but she says what she feels, which is really refreshing.”
While the “bad” behavior may not be universal, the circumstance bringing these characters together—the death of their grandfather—certainly is. “People can relate to wanting a memento of somebody they were close to and struggling with how to handle not getting it— or getting it— or wanting it so badly that they act unlike themselves to get it,” explained director Keely Kurtas-Chapman, whose most recent credits include two comedies, Dinner with Friends and House of Yes for Curtain Players .
“You can look at this play two ways. You can say this play is about a Jewish family struggling with the death of their grandfather. Or you can say this is a play about a family struggling with the death of their grandfather. It clearly is about a Jewish family, but I think that all families go through this,” Kurtas-Chapman said.
Kurtas-Chapman brings a wealth of experience to Gallery Players as both an actor and director. In addition to working with CATCO, Red Herring Theatre Ensemble, and Theatre Daedalus, among others, she last worked with Gallery Players on The Chosen in 2005. Under Kurtas-Chapman’s capable direction, the actors bring their multi-dimensional characters to life, adding realism and subtlety to their performances.
“We’re building lots of layers into this,” said Kurtas-Chapman, who is drawn to dark comedy and plays featuring dysfunctional family relationships. “We’re all enjoying exploring the characters – asking ourselves, why would a rational, reasonable person choose to do these things, use these words?”
Along with the help of Rabbi Eric Woodward, assistant rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel, who is consulting on the play, the actors and director workshop each character so that these moments never feel over-the-top or forced, but rather recognizable to audiences—Jewish or otherwise—who have gone through a tragic loss.
Following each of the Sunday performances, on September 7, 14, and the 21, the cast, crew, and different guest panelists, including Rabbi Woodward, will join the audience for an engaging discussion of the play’s relevance for both Jews and non-Jews. These talkbacks will be both free and open to the public.
Rabbi Woodward discussed inclusion and anti-Semitism with the group during a recent rehearsal, providing a historical perspective for the play. “With Rabbi Woodward, we learned that as anti-Semitism declined, greater exposure to a more open community also meant inclusion of non-Jews in the Jewish community,” Kurtas-Chapman recalled. The more inclusive the world becomes, the more intermarriage occurs, and Jews have to safeguard their identity from the outside world, Kurtas-Chapman explained. “The play shows how the acceptance of Jews in the global community is a double-edged sword in some ways.”
The play may especially resonate with younger Jewish audiences grappling with similar questions of how to pass down the Jewish faith while staying true to themselves. Shtivelberg can relate to his character’s predicament. “Not unlike Liam, my own grandfather was in the Holocaust in the Baltic Ghetto in a small town in the Ukraine. My parents immigrated to the United States in 1988. Culturally, I feel very Jewish. And I think culturally Liam does, too.”
Bad Jews is filled with comedic highs and lows, all revolving around the central question of who is more deserving of their grandfather’s treasured heirloom. “Ultimately, this play is about who is ‘Jewish enough’ to earn the family keepsake,” explained Saltman.
But it’s also more than that, added Shtein. “The whole time the audience will think that the play is about this Chai, but there’s a lot underneath it. It’s about the Chai, but it’s not. [It’s] about how you might have family members you don’t like or who have different views from you, but in the end, you’re still family. And you still have to figure out a way to be with them.”
“As much as the play confronts issues that are very pressing and very unique to our generation, I also think younger Jewish audiences would enjoy watching very recognizable young, Jewish characters—characters they know but may not have seen on stage before—going after each other as only a Jewish family can,” said Berman.
“There’s so much intense energy in the play. My last role was more explicitly a showboat kind of role – as the crazed, possibly homicidal, Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap. One reporter tracked me down to ask if I was actually that creepy and disturbing in real life. But then and now, I’m trying to play the part as truthfully as possible, to let the humor come from the absurdity of the situation. It helps that the writing is so sharp,” Berman said.
Like Berman, Shtivelberg was intrigued by the play’s wit, especially after seeing it off-Broadway. When he learned the play was making its Ohio debut at Gallery Players, he knew he had to be in it. “I was laughing through the whole play almost. It’s one of the most naturalistic plays that I’ve ever read. It feels very real. It’s very in the now,” he said.
By the play’s end, the cousins are not necessarily in a better place in their relationships with one another or even themselves, but are “certainly in a more honest one,” said Berman. “Without giving too much away, there are some intense moments of confrontation in the play. Some of the relationships are fundamentally transformed. The play gives the characters the chance to see each other as they truly are—some of them perhaps for the first time—and how they are seen by others. One can hope that will help them move forward.”
Show times are: Saturdays, Sept. 6, 13 and 20 @ 8 p.m.; Sundays, Sept. 7, 14 and 21 @ 2:30 p.m., and Thursdays, Sept. 11 and 18 @ 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for JCC members, $20 for nonmembers, $13 for senior members, $18 for senior nonmembers, $10 for children or students. Interested groups of 10 or more may purchase their tickets for $10 each.
Season subscriptions for Gallery Players 66th season are also currently on sale at a special Buy One Get One FREE offer and entitles the purchaser two tickets to all four Gallery players productions this season. Special prices for this offer, only available through Sept. 6, are $55 for JCC members and $70 for nonmembers.
All performances take place in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Columbus, 1125 College Ave., Columbus.