Joshua Harmon

Kvetching Cousins

Review of Bad Jews at Long Wharf Theatre Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, directed by Oliver Butler, brings to the Long Wharf the sharpest comedy I’ve seen there. This is comedy that draws blood, where the situations, so far from smacking of sit-com chuckles or of Woody Allenesque irony, are fraught with the awkward and the unpleasant. Like the stuff that really happens when families get together.

At the basis of Bad Jews is what Jewishness is supposed to mean to the current crop of twenty-somethings. Poppy, the patriarch who survived the Holocaust and kept his father’s heirloom chai pendant—a combination of two Hebrew letters that signifies “life”—beneath his tongue for two years in the death camps, has just passed away. At his daughter’s Upper West Side apartment they’re sitting shiva, but the play takes place in an efficiency the family keeps for guests—in this case, two sons home from college who can’t stay in their parents’ apartment because the bedroom of the younger, Jonah (Max Michael Miller), has become a home office, while the room of Liam (Michael Steinmetz), the older, is hosting a visiting aunt and uncle; also staying in the efficiency is the daughter of the latter couple, Daphna, née Diana (Keilly McQuail), the boys’ cousin. The efficiency, located in the same building as the parental spread, is equipped with a pull-out sofa and two inflatable air mattresses, slumber-party style. And it’s here that a comic drama of blood and guts and laughs unfolds.

When she wants to ingratiate herself, as she does with her video-game-playing, boxers-wearing cousin Jonah, Daphna is gooey and persistent. He seems an easy going sort and no match for her stated intent to have Poppy’s chai for herself, as she, in her hyper-awareness of Jewishness, feels she so clearly deserves. We can assume this isn’t going to go over so well with older cousin Liam, who soon arrives, accompanied by his shiksa girlfriend Melody (Christy Escobar), both fresh from the slopes of Aspen, cutting short a ski trip to pay respects, but not in time for the funeral.

Served up in short order are two amazing dressing-downs: Liam delivers to Melody and Jonah, while Daphna is in the bathroom sullenly brushing her hair, a frantic annihilation of Daphna’s character and pretensions, an avalanche of animosity and aggravation that buries all fellow feeling. It’s both horrible and hilarious. And that’s before he even learns of his cousin’s designs on the chai pendant. The other screed is delivered by Daphna to her cousins, while Melody inhabits the bathroom, tearing apart Liam for everything from studying other cultures—he’s in graduate study on Japan—rather than his own, to his choice of non-Jewish girls who are clearly inferior to him. In the hands of director Butler, who directed Will Eno’s sharp as tacks domestic comedy Open House last year at Roundabout in New York, Harmon’s play gets at the flowing loathing that only people who have resented each other from childhood can level at one another. It’s lethal, and cathartic as only bilious comedy can be.

At the heart of the play—its pained heart actually—is the difficult burden of Jewishness, an ethnic identity that is also ethical, that both imposes and succors. For some, it’s something to be flipped off—as Liam does in the story Daphna tells of him boasting he’s a “bad Jew”—and for others something to be claimed at all cost, as Daphna tries to do, even if it means denying her efforts—revealed by Liam—to identify with Princess Di as a child. In other words, no one holds your follies hostage like your kin, and when one needs ammunition, growing up together will always provide it.

Most of the interactions turn on Daphna’s commitment to outrage—and McQuail is exquisite at registering it: outrage not only at the indignities that have been visited upon the Jewish race since time immemorial, but particularly—pointedly—relentlessly—the indignities perpetrated by the uncaring assimilationists and cultural relativists among the Jews of her generation. Hers is an indignation that bristles in every pore. And the symbol not only of Jewishness as she conceives it—as family, tradition and respect for the ages—but also of the indifference to all of that by her superior and financially better-off elder cousin is Poppy’s talismanic chai. It’s also the pendant penniless Poppy used to propose to his bride; Liam insists he has received both Poppy’s chai and his blessing for his own proposal to Melody. Thus, the actual meaning of the chai gets further complicated. Is it meant to represent the past and all those murdered Jews, and to be handed down now as a keepsake of commemoration? Or, is it meant to represent the future, an heirloom for the eldest among Poppy’s grandchildren as he begins a family—even if with a woman who says her people have “always” been in Delaware and has a hard time imagining the meaning of ancestors?

Bad Jews makes us consider these themes as they surface in the give-and-take of these somewhat spoiled cousins. As Jonah, the quiet one who wants to stay out of the squabbling, Max Michael Miller offers a range of pained reactions and non-reactions and, in the end, more intensity than one would suspect of him. As Melody, blithe and polite, who happens unwittingly into this upper West Side minefield, Christy Escobar plays up Melody’s fecklessness but has the guts to silence headstrong Liam when necessary; she also gets a show-stopping turn doing a good job of singing badly “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess (a moment full of comic implications). As Liam, Michael Steinmetz, besides investing his diatribe against Daphna with all the agitated scorn it requires, is often at his best when silent. He hears out Daphna’s harangue with the stoical superiority that seems his birthright in a family that has both suffered and prospered, and his dogged gathering of his and his fiancée’s things, after she proves something more of a princess than he perhaps thought, speaks volumes. Good as all that is, it’s Keilly McQuail’s show all the way. Her Daphna is a constant barrage of mannerisms—preening, undulating, striking poses, hanging fire with one of the most exaggerated glares conceivable. Impossible to live with as she is, Daphna also manifests the impossibility of living up to a past that her generation has only a tenuous relation to through elders who, as Liam says, will forever only be part of the fuzzy feelings of childhood.

It may be that Harmon’s play is a bit insular for a general audience, but the force of the personalities on view here place such spectators in the place of Melody, well-meaning and aghast at how vicious spinning the truth can be. Bad Jews writhes with galvanic comedy, full of the flash of wit and the clash of wills. It zings and bites and goes for the throat—and has a lot of fun doing it.

[Full disclosure: I’m from Delaware, and am the product of the kind of northern European mix that Melody eventually claims, but I also spent a fair amount of time, for a time, around the Wilmington JJC, on Garden of Eden Road, and I was gripped, and in stitches, throughout this serious comedy.]


Bad Jews By Joshua Harmon Directed by Oliver Butler

Set Design: Antje Ellermann; Costume Design: Paul Carey; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: M. L. Dogg; Hair & Makeup Design: Dave Bova; Fight Director: Tim Acito; Production Stage Manager: Lindsey Turteltaub; Photography: T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre Februrary 18-March 22, 2015

50th Anniversary Season of the Long Wharf Theatre

Now that the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has come and gone, and even the Yale Summer Cabaret is on a hiatus until it resumes on the 11th, what is a theater person to do? One possibility is start thinking about next season.

Last week at the Long Wharf Theatre, Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein and Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, in a conversation on stage, situated in two comfy chairs, outlined the coming 50th Anniversary Season of the New Haven theater staple, giving a nearly full house details on the process behind their choices and introducing three dramatic readings from the final three plays to be featured.

Ting, taking the role of interviewer, asked Edelstein “what is the process” in picking plays for a season. There was a charge of applause indicating that many in the audience wonder about that very question. While allowing that the process of selection is the “hardest thing,” Edelstein alluded to his 25 year experience of “picking seasons” both at Long Wharf and in Portland. He mentioned some of the logistics that affect decisions—most notably the “shrinking size of shows,” so that shows with huge casts are harder and harder to put on. And yet Edelstein said he always begins with what he “dreams of doing”—the shows he most would like to put on or see put on. “All our dreams are never realized,” he admitted, but he never loses sight of the main purpose: that a play “say something about what it’s like to be alive now.” And, throwing the question open to the audience a bit, he asked how many would agree that the future of the theater is in new writing and in finding works that appeal to a younger demographic. Most present seemed to agree heartily with this proposition.

Alluding to “the bumpy road and false starts and detours” of a process Edelstein called “complicated” and “non-predictive,” he also spoke of the three main desiderata: that the play be relevant to our local community, that it reflect the times and the country we all live in, and that the season end with a balanced budget. He added that one of the key questions each year is what the centerpiece of the season will be. This year, for the 50th anniversary of the Long Wharf Theatre, he gave that question considerable consideration, with some ideas including works by Arthur Miller, such as The Crucible, which was the first play produced at the Long Wharf, or Death of a Salesman which has never been staged there and which Edelstein would like to direct, though, he added, he felt it was “the wrong statement” at this time.

What play did fit the bill? Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which Edelstein defended (against those who hear the title and think “high school production”) as perhaps the greatest play in the U.S. canon, a play “misunderstood” as “folksy” when in fact it was conceived by its author, who attended Yale and is buried in Hamden, as engaging with avant-garde literature of its time. What’s more, set in “all white” New Hampshire in the early 1900s, Our Town has come to seem a bit of a relic of a more homogeneous America. Edelstein intends to change all that by directed an interracial, multicultural Our Town that “looks like our town now.” He admitted to being “nervous as hell” about tackling this perhaps over-familiar chestnut with new vision as the first play of the season, then added a further wrinkle: the play would be cast using only Long Wharf “alum”—actors and crew who had worked there before. The combination of American classic, Long Wharf familiars, and a more contemporary approach should add up to an Our Town that—if you live in this town—you will not want to miss. Edelstein assured us that we “will not be disappointed.”


Ting, still the interviewer, set up the next play on the bill by restating a “story” he heard that author, comedian, actor, playwright Steve Martin, upon seeing Edelstein’s version of Martin’s The Underpants at Hartford Stage last year decided that he must have the director do Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Edelstein recounted how he met Martin at a production of The Underpants and knew that Martin felt the show had been done to perfection. Next thing he knew, he heard that Martin told the producers planning a revival of Lapin Agile that, it’s hoped, may go to Broadway for the first time, that Edelstein was the man for the job. Consequently, Long Wharf audiences will find another clever Martin comedy offered up with a sense of both its verbal absurdities and its slapstick pace, as was The Underpants. And if it does get to Broadway, you can say you saw it here first.


Next is the return of Dael Orlandersmith, the playwright, actress, and poet, whose works have “quite a fan base in New Haven,” where Yellowman and The Blue Album were staged at Long Wharf. Forever will be on its world premiere run, beginning in LA and stopping in New Haven en route to New York. Centered around the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where, it so happens, American expats such as rock star Jim Morrison and renowned African-American author Richard Wright are buried among French literary figures and other notables, Forever deals with the ghosts of the past, and the sense of family—“the ones we were born into, the ones we create for ourselves”—and is, Edelstein says, Orlandersmith’s “most powerful piece yet.”


Called by the New York Times one of the best comedies of the 2013-14 season in New York, Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews takes up the theme of legacy where two cousins, one male and one female, battle over a religious necklace, an heirloom that their late grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust, kept concealed on his person throughout his years of captivity. The jousting between the staunchly Hebraic Daphna and her less observant cousin Liam fuels a play of the comic ties and trials of blood relations. The except on stage at the Long Wharf preview readily attested to the comic potential of Daphna’s belligerence and the hapless niceness of Liam’s non-Jewish girlfriend in the face of such superior attitudes.


For the penultimate production of the season, director Eric Ting brings us a play that has its finger on the dismaying news events that continue to surface in the supposedly “post-racial” America of the Obama presidency. Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) tells of the aftermath, for an interracial family, of the loss of young, engaging and promising Tray. Revealed to us in flashbacks, Tray’s life involves, in the scene enacted for us at the preview, managing a Starbucks where his step-mother, who abandoned Tray and his younger sister to their grandmother’s care, shows up, looking for a job. An “issue play on some level,” Ting said, “at heart it’s about family,” and the role it plays in dealing with tragic events and the hardships of contemporary life.

brownsville song (b-side for tray) BY KIMBER LEE DIRECTED BY ERIC TING CLAIRE TOW STAGE IN THE C. NEWTON SCHENCK III THEATRE A co-production with Philadelphia Theatre Company MARCH 25-APRIL 19, 2015 PRESS OPENING: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 1, 2015

The final play of the season, directed by Edelstein, will be the world premiere of The Second Mrs. Wilson, a play that revisits an interesting historical situation. President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife died while he was in office and he became the first president to woo and wed a woman while president. That would be interesting enough, perhaps, but the situation of the play is more pressing: not long after the wedding, Wilson suffered a stroke and was largely incapacitated. Di Pietro’s play looks at a situation in which a woman, persona non grata to the Cabinet and others trying to run the president’s administration, has to take charge in a man’s world in her husband’s stead as de facto head of the Executive Branch. In the scenes enacted at the preview, we saw Edith Boling Galt, a widow, charm the donnish president Wilson; in the second we watched her take command, delicately but firmly, of a meeting with one of the chiefs of staff. A play about the kinds of tests and resources in life that demand strong resolve, the play is relevant to the changing role of women in American politics.


Subscriptions are already on sale. Single tickets will go on sale Monday, August 4. For more information about the 50th anniversary season, visit or call 203-787-4282.