Squabbles over family heirlooms following the death of the patriarch are not new—but they are taken to a whole new level in the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest production, Bad Jews.
Written by Joshua Harmon, the play received an Outer Critic’s Circle nomination for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play in 2012-2013. It’s set in a New York City apartment the evening after the funeral of Poppy, the aforementioned patriarch. His three grandchildren—Diana (she prefers her Hebrew name, Daphna), her cousin Jonah, and his brother Liam (who does NOT like his Hebrew moniker, Schlomo)—are spending the night, as is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody.
The word “dysfunctional” does not even begin to describe the dynamics of this group. Things start out tense and deteriorate steadily from there. Diana is angry at Liam because he and Melody (a shiksa!) missed the funeral after Liam dropped his iPhone from an Aspen ski lift. But the bad blood between the two cousins goes way back: Diana professes deep devotion to her Jewish faith, while Liam takes a much more casual approach. His propensity to date non-Jewish women really sticks in Diana’s craw; she thinks they’re “beneath him.” Liam, on the other hand, mocks what he calls Diana’s temporary religious fanaticism, and does not believe that her Israeli fiancé truly exists.
But the real drama of the play centers around a piece of jewelry Poppy wore for most of his life. It’s a chain with the Hebrew word “chai” (living) spelled out in gold. He kept it safe from the Nazis while in a concentration camp by hiding it under his tongue. He later proposed to his wife with it, because he could not afford a ring. Diana desperately wants this memento of her grandfather, and feels that it’s rightfully hers—especially since she’s always been a devout Jew. What Diana doesn’t know is that the chain has already been passed down to Liam (sent to him by his mother), and that he intends to give it to Melody this very evening when he proposes.
Each member of the four person cast is terrific. Though he does not have many lines, Cameron Shingler skillfully portrays Jonah’s anguish and discomfort at being thrust into the middle of his family members’ battles. He sits quietly absorbed in his iPhone or with his head in his hands as the verbal artillery flies around him. You get the sense he’d rather the floor open up and swallow him. Actively listening onstage and believably reacting (or NOT reacting as appropriate) requires great acting skill. Shingler pulls it off.
Kyrsten Watt is equally as good as Melody, the meek, squeaky-voiced former opera student. After just two professional auditions, Melody bagged a classical music career and is now working for a nonprofit—but she sports a tattoo of a treble clef on her calf (which Diana describes as “the size of a tumor”) as a sentimental reminder of her former life. Like Jonah, Melody tries valiantly to avoid being drawn into the Diana-Liam war. In an attempt to relax everyone when the yelling gets too intense, Melody sings an absolutely hilarious, off-pitch version of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. It’s one of the highlights of the show.
As Liam, Sean Timothy Brown ably captures the character’s shallow, smug and entitled demeanor, and matches Diana insult for insult. Some of their verbal sparring is quite loud and sometimes frightening. Being Jewish does not seem to mean all that much to him. We learn that once during Passover, Liam apparently consumed a forbidden cookie, proclaiming “I’m a bad Jew”—hence the play’s title. But Brown also shows a tender side; he makes Liam’s love for Melody seem quite genuine.
The MVP Award for this production of Bad Jews goes to Jordana Simone Pepper as the verbose, hot-tempered Diana. With the exception of the first 30 seconds or so, when she could have used a little more vocal projection, she’s nearly flawless. Once this girl gets started talking, it’s hard to get her to stop. (You know the type.) Whether she’s shouting at Liam over their religious differences, chastising Jonah for not taking her side, or grilling poor Melody about where her people were from “before Delaware,” Pepper makes every note ring true. She’s often a hoot, sometimes irritating, occasionally touching, and always real.
Rosemary Mallett’s direction is spot-on. She gets strong performances from everyone, while a terrific set and great costumes, sound and lighting all help bring this thought-provoking play to life.
Kudos to Desert Ensemble Theatre’s founding director Tony Padilla and executive director Shawn Abramowitz for another excellent production. (Full disclosure: I acted in Desert Ensemble’s previous show.) Bad Jews is not bad; it’s damn good.
Bad Jews, produced by the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 17, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets, call 760-565-2476 or go to www.detctheatre.org.