Bad Jews at the Unicorn Theatre – 5 stars
Bad Jews – A Comedy by Joshua Harmon; Directed by Cynthia Levin; Stage Manger Tanya Brown; Scenic Designer Gary Mosby; Lighting Designer Victor En Yu Tan. Presented by Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, MO through November 16.
Judaism has an ancient history that is passed down from one generation to another. But what happens when the next generation doesn’t want all that responsibility? The funeral of one family’s grandfather lends immediacy to this long term issue, and puts his grandchildren in the crucible in this delightful and insightful one act play with an ensemble cast of four.
Dina Thomas (Daphna) sparks most of the action in the play, talking a mile a minute with loud body language and hand gestures, a stereotype that so well embodied the Jewish people that she kept the crowd laughing almost without stop in the first few minutes. Her wonderful comedic timing added so many laughs to the humor already in the script. The play is also a drama that is the opposite of shallow. It’s a deep story at the heart of what it means to be Jewish and the burden that some people feel about being passed the torch from the previous generation.
The cast enhanced the nuanced points in the script by Joshua Harmon. Mark Thomas (Jonah) had perhaps the most challenging role because his character was shy, and the play is made up of long monologues to which he needed to respond nonverbally. His reactions never became stale, showing a wide range of body language with cues that were clear enough for the audience to guess what he was thinking. This made him a real though silent partner in the monologues. For a play so full of dialogue, which takes place in a “bottle”, a studio apartment, it was surprising how there was never a dull moment, due to the blocking and motion of the actors. From the characters hiding from the others in the kitchen (Jonah) to stumbling over the furniture (Liam, played by Doogin Brown), to slamming the doors (Melody, played by Erika Baker), the cast transformed Bad Jews, which is dialogue heavy, into a riveting 4-way intellectual debate, with points being scored and kept track of on all sides.
A half hour into the show the tension between the characters was so intense that it could not step back all the way to being a full comedy. I even caught myself grinding my teeth from the tension. But having seen the end of the play, I understand that if Director Cynthia Levin had chosen to retain a campy tone throughout, with less shouting and attack language, the ending twist would not have been believable. One could call the ending ambiguous, but in speaking with the cast I came to learn that clues are there as to where the play is going to go next. So rather than an ambiguous ending, the play rather conserves its energy, ending like Pygmalion (the play from which the musical “My Fair Lady” was drawn) at the very moment that what happens from then on is so defined that it does not need to be played out.
Because the scene did not change, there was not much for a lighting designer to do, but the set… Oy! Wonderful. The apartment was completely convincing, color perfect, and even the kitchen sink had running water. I got a one second glimpse, as one of the characters opened a cabinet, that it was fully stocked with food and glasses. At one point Dina Thomas (Daphna) picked up a standing lamp, and then used it to illustrate a point without telegraphing that this was why she had it in her hand. You could see her form the idea to use the lamp as she held it.
Showing us their characters thinking helped the actors keep the audience on the edge between two modes. On one side, all the characters were flawed: none was easily likeable. Yet on the other side, we could empathize with all the characters. They didn’t win us over with shallow charm, but they didn’t lose us either. Through to the very end of the show, you can see both sides of a debate on modern Judaism played out through characters that embody similar yet so importantly different ideals.
It’s easy when delivering a mountain of dialogue to lose sight of the forest for the trees. A cast can get caught up in tit-for-tat conversations where the audience is not sure where they are going. Are we rising to a climax? Is there a peace being negotiated? The cast of Bad Jews solved this problem, cueing off of each other’s emotional tones, and keeping the tension smoothly rising or smoothly descending. It wasn’t a roadmap, but you never felt lost in the emotional landscape, thanks surely to the Director.
At the afterparty, honorably catered by Po’s Dumpling Bar, I got a chance to speak briefly with most of the cast.
Events INSIDER: Mark, your character Jonah is the shy one in the show. How did you develop your wide range of nonverbal reactions while listening to so many monologues?
Mark Thomas: There is a lot of listening in the show, but luckily I have fantastic actors to listen to. The trick is to listen to it like you’ve never heard it before, even though tonight was the 80th time.
Events INSIDER: You and Dina are married I assume?
Mark Thomas: Yes, we are married. We met at UKMC when we were doing grad school here.
Events INSIDER: Dina, You were hilarious in the show and obviously having fun playing up the Jewishness of your character. Where did your mannerisms come from? It’s okay to stereotype Jewish people, I suppose, if you are one. They have a good sense of humor.
Dina Thomas: Yes, of course we do! (laughs)
Dina Thomas: Well, I grew up in a very Jewish household, with very Jewish relatives, ranging from Reform all the way to Hassidic Ultra-Orthodox Jews, so we really spanned the whole Jewish spectrum.
Dina Thomas: So I just pulled from that. I act that way in real life, too; there are some things I’ll say where [my husband] Mark will say, “Oh my God. That is so Jewish.” So I always knew that it was in there. And in this play, the dialogue brings it out. I heard it in my head and went with my gut.
Events INSIDER: Erika, in the play, because you are a non-Jewish person marrying into the family, your character is seen as sort of a threat to the propagation and survival of the Jewish culture. You are the final stop in a 5,000-year-old tradition… but on the other hand, what kind of modern person wants to live with 5,000-year-old traditions!
Erika Baker: Both Daphna and Liam make valid points about the death of Judaism, and on Liam’s end, talking about all people being one people and supporting each other [regardless of religion]… of course we should do that. That makes sense. We should all love each other. But it’s also depressing when Daphna says that Judaism is fading with each generation.
It’s remarkable to see a show that has intellectual points to make, but does it in a way that is entertaining, not pedantic, and accessible to the layman. I hate to be the person who pretends to understand a show because I’m too embarassed to admit that I have no idea what Shakespeare or Tom Stoppard are talking about sometimes. With Bad Jews, this is simply not a problem. Everything is clear without losing any depth. Then to see that kind of show produced with a cast who enhance each bit of both comedy and tragedy… It doesn’t get any better than that.
Missouri has a fewer than 1% Jewish population. Make this your chance to learn something more about The Chosen (some of whom don’t want to be chosen). It wasn’t at all a difficult decision to give Bad Jews a hearty five stars.
For more, see www.unicorntheatre.org.
Bad Jews is also playing at the Speakeasy Stage in Boston! See www.speakeasystage.com.