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Theatre Reviews Review: Joshua Harmon’s play on identity gets fresh, edgy take at Harold Green Jewish Theatre

  • Title: Bad Jews
  • Written by: Joshua Harmon
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: Lisa Rubin
  • Actors: Jamie Elman, Ellen Denny, Jake Goldsbie and Sarah Segal-Lazar
  • Company: The Segal Centre presented by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre
  • Venue: Greenwin Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Nov. 11

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American playwright Joshua Harmon’s 2013 off-Broadway comedy Bad Jews is a very dark and very popular show. It seems to pop up everywhere, all the time – and, indeed, it’s now back in Toronto for a second time in as many years.

If you missed the 2017 production at the Koffler Centre (as I did), don’t make the same mistake about the one currently on stage that the Harold Green Jewish Theatre has brought in from the Segal Centre in Montreal.

After the funeral of their Holocaust-survivor grandfather, Poppy, first cousins Daphna (Sarah Segal-Lazar) and Liam (Jamie Elman) end up crashing on inflatable mattresses in the New York studio apartment of Liam’s quiet brother, Jonah (Jake Goldsbie).

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Jamie Elman, Jake Goldsbie, Sarah Segal-Lazar and Ellen Denny in Bad Jews.

Leslie Schachter

Daphna, who plans to move to Israel after she graduates from Vassar College, is very serious about being Jewish, both culturally and religiously.

Liam, a grad student in cultural studies at the University of Chicago who has brought along his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Ellen Denny), defines himself as an American first and foremost.

Each viewing the other as a “bad Jew,” the two cousins have long despised each other the way only family members can – and their shared grief in a cramped space brings those feelings to the surface.

According to Daphna, Liam only begins a sentence with “as a Jew” when he’s speaking out about the plight of the Palestinians. According to Liam, Daphna’s views have moved from pride in her religion and culture to a kind of Jewish supremacy.

And that’s only the beginning of the nasty things they have to say about each other (and their significant others) in an explosive confrontation. Adding fuel to the fire: Both have their eyes on one of their late grandfather’s possessions due to its symbolic value, which differs significantly through the prisms of their personal ideologies.

The great virtue of Harmon’s one-room, real-time play is that he doesn’t really paint either of these first cousins as particularly likeable – and director Lisa Rubin’s production resists softening or sentimentalizing the sharp Shavian script in any way.

Indeed, as Daphna, Segal-Lazar gives an almost off-putting performance, accurately conjuring the claustrophobic effect of being trapped in a room with a self-righteous relative who never seems to shut up.

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While I suspect the playwright intended the character to be comically disagreeable rather than make your skin crawl, I eventually came to the conclusion that Segal-Lazar’s risky take on the character paid off.

It made Daphna’s gradual humanization and the turn of her dispute with Liam from the petty to deeply felt and understandable that much more affecting – and made the ending pack a powerful wallop.

No doubt many Harold Green Jewish Theatre audience members will be very familiar with the debate about cultural preservation versus assimilation, but Harmon’s script tackles it in a fresh, edgy way for a new generation. It was wonderful to see a grandmother and her granddaughter in animated conversation on their way out of the play – and the unanswerable questions about inclusion and identity at the heart of Bad Jews will be relatable to bad spectators of all backgrounds.

Rubin’s production probably looked and sounded better at the intimate Segal Centre she runs in Montreal than it does in the ghastly, echoing Greenwin Theatre that’s been carved out of the Toronto Centre for the Arts. I’ll never get used to actors using head mikes for non-musical plays – but that’s my only quibble.

Note: Bad Jews opened in Toronto two days before 11 Jewish people were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in a horrendous anti-Semitic attack. May their memories be a blessing.

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