By Suzi Brozman Louis Gregory as Jonah and Galen Crawley as Daphna form half the cast of “Bad Jews.” (courtesy of Actor’s Express)
When I heard that Actor’s Express was presenting a play titled “Bad Jews,” dozens of thoughts flashed through my mind, including a list of people I know who could fall into that category. When I was told it was a comedy, all I could think of was Groucho Marx’s joke that he’d never want to be part of a group that would have him. So it was with great trepidation and a lot of curiosity that I set out for the theater.
One thing became immediately clear: This is not a comedy, or at least not just a comedy. How can one laugh at the death of a beloved grandfather, Poppy, a survivor of the Holocaust?
But I was wrong. The audience wasn’t expected to laugh at death, but at the multiplicity of Jewish traits exhibited by the mourners, the attitudes held by each of them and each of us, and the way stress highlights our feelings and behaviors.
First the cast — only four players, but the ghosts of many buzz around their lines, their ideas, their expectations. The action takes place in Jonah’s apartment, a river-view studio his parents bought him. So we have our first cliché: rich, spoiled Jewish kid. Except he isn’t. He’s a peacemaker, wanting everyone to get along. He’s beautifully portrayed by Louis Gregory.
Then there’s his older brother, Liam, played by Wyatt Fenner, who portrays the self-hating Jew — Christmas tree, Christian girlfriend and all. But isn’t there always more? We see his conflicted actions, his anger, his uncertainty, and we know, just know, there’d be a lot to know if we only had time, not just the 90 minutes allocated for the play. Temper and single-mindedness.
The female protagonist, Daphna, is interpreted lovingly by Suzi Bass Award winner Galen Crawley. You know her, maybe you were her: smart, very smart, committed to her Jewishness (the only one in the group who is), so much so that she wears it (excuse the expression) like a cross on her sleeve. She is in the process of discovering herself, and she’s happy — no, determined — to let everyone know what she knows and how she knows she’s right.
And there’s Melody, poor innocent Melody, who has gotten involved by falling in love with Wyatt, who wants to marry her, wants to propose to her, not with the standard flashy diamond ring, but with his newly dead grandfather’s chai medallion, which Poppy cherished throughout the death camps and with which he proposed decades ago to Grandma. Poor, perfectly coifed blond Melody, beautifully acted by Rachel DeJulio.
Where’s the rub? Daphna thinks she deserves the chai, because she see herself as the only one in the family keeping Judaism alive and active. Wyatt has it, and that’s nine-tenths of the law. Jonah wants them to stop fighting, which they continue with a cruel and nasty vengeance. And Melody, well, she wants to be engaged.
Why bad Jews? They aren’t observant and don’t necessarily believe in Judaism, in Israel, in family or perhaps even in God. But no worse than those who marched through my head, I can promise you that.
The acting is by turns heartwarming, heart-wrenching, frightening, but never boring. The story has a few things I’d argue with, but not enough to make me want to leave. Freddie Ashley does his usual precise, elegant job of directing. And you should do your usual thing of getting tickets as soon as possible before you miss this elegant, thought-provoking, slice-of-life production.
What: “Bad Jews”
Where: Actor’s Express, King Plow Arts Center, 887 W. Marietta St., Atlanta
When: Through Feb. 22
Tickets: $26 to $45; actors-express.com or 404-607-7469