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BWW Review: Vivid Theatre's Outdoor Production of Joshua Harmon's BAD JEWS at the JCC on the Cohn Campus

Four Talented Actors Bring the Whip-Smart Script To Life!

BWW Review: Vivid Theatre's Outdoor Production of Joshua Harmon's BAD JEWS at the JCC on the Cohn Campus BWW Review: Vivid Theatre's Outdoor Production of Joshua Harmon's BAD JEWS at the JCC on the Cohn Campus

You know that you're in the middle of a pandemic when you're watching an intimate show outside while it's sprinkling, and the onstage actors don masks the whole time. Usually outside shows are reserved for splashy musicals or Shakespeare comedies. Joshua Harmon's BAD JEWS, a four-person play set in New York City, is not an ideal show for this outdoor treatment, even when it's performed beside the Jewish Cultural Center on the Cohn campus. With mosquitos, weather fears, and noise from all directions, the situation is not idyllic. Still, Artistic Director Drew Eberhard and the fine folks at Vivid Theatre Productions, one of the newer professional local theatre companies, are to be applauded for attempting this work in the Age of Covid, for keeping the faith and proving how true the "show must go on" cliché is.

Socially distanced protocols were in place for everyone: The audience sat at tables and individual chairs spread out, and all viewers present sported masks. The actors onstage also wore masks, and this is where I am torn. Not for safety protocols, where mask-wearing by the actors is 100% necessary in this case, but for aesthetic purposes. Do we ever get beyond actors in masks--or, specifically here, face shields--in a show like this (it's not the "Masquerade" number from Phantom of the Opera). As an audience member, I had to stretch my imagination (and yes, I kind of got used to it as the show progressed). But I am still torn about the whole thing.

What I'm not torn about is Joshua Harmon's whip-smart script of BAD JEWS. In my list of the 101 Greatest Plays of the Past 100 Years that appeared in BWW last April, BAD JEWS ranked at #86.

The storyline is pretty basic: Brothers Jonah and especially Liam are not particularly devout Jews, but the same cannot be said about their "uber-Jewish" cousin, Daphna. After the funeral of their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor they call Poppy, Liam and Daphna are both wanting to inherit their grandfather's "chai" medallion which survived the Holocaust with him. Daphna thinks she is entitled to it, being the only real practicing Jew among the grandkids, but Liam wants to use it to propose to his shiksa girlfriend, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Delawarean named Melody. But Daphna won't allow it. "Over my dead Jewish corpse is that going on her," she says. Set in a single night in a supposed-to-be-nice New York City studio apartment, we watch the dramedy of Daphna, Liam, Jonah and Melody unfold in real time.

The play needs a powerhouse in the part of Daphna, and this is where this production of BAD JEWS delivers. I've seen Katie Michaels onstage only once before--in a relatively small part as a hilariously crazed waiter in She Loves Me--but she's a major find here. Her Daphna is like Lisa Lampanelli mixed with Bette Midler and a monster from Angus Beer's Fragment, complete with an unfettered mass of red hair. She's superb. Bigger than life, she owns the stage, imparting her will onto the others (I found myself siding with her, even though she's overwhelmingly maddening). She's funny, of course, but we also sense that her bluster covers up her sadness, her aloneness; her Judaism is the one thing she can cling to, to carry from the previous generations, giving her a sense of false superiority over the less Jewish of her relatives. Daphna is a purposely annoying character--self-righteous and obnoxiously loud and whiny--and I loved watching Michaels every second that she was on the stage.

As Liam, the slackiest slacker when it comes to practicing Judaism, Shaun Memmel is outstanding. Tall and bespectacled, he's a force, and few can do anger as well as Memmel. His big monologue--a volcano of fury and outrage over Daphna--is sensational. I could use some more levels at times, maybe even building the monologues rather than starting them so strong, but we feel his frustration bursting at the seams. Having seen Memmel's work in several shows over the years, he's never been better.

As Liam's brother, Jonah, Chris Cavazza has the most difficult part in the play. Jonah is a reactive character, caught between the Liam-Daphna war of words. But Cavazza listens marvelously, always in character, always engaging. Only one moment of his rang false: When he's trying to nix a conversation about the grandfather's "Chai" medallion. He's so over the top here, almost cartoon-like, that it seems like a completely different character sprung onstage out of nowhere. It's like F. Murray Abraham suddenly turned into Jerry Lewis.

The fourth character, Melody, is well-played by Haley Janeda, who I recall from Jobsite's A Midsummer Night's Dream a year ago. Her Melody is the outsider, and Janeda is perfectly cast. Although Melody studied opera in college, she sings it so horrendously in BAD JEWS that I wonder if she's lying about her credentials the whole time. I think Janeda overdoes the "bad opera" here, and I know I am in the minority with this opinion. The audience obviously lapped it up, laughing through her rendition of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess (she makes Florence Foster Jenkins sound like Lady Gaga at the Biden inauguration), but her over-the-top badness eclipsed the true meaning of the moment: A blonde, blue-eyed white girl singing a song meant for black women.

I wonder what it is about Melody that attracts Liam, other than her beauty. She's not an intellectual powerhouse, nor is she a stunning conversationalist. What is it that makes him want to spend the rest of his life with her? Could it be that she, in her simplicity, represents everything that is opposite of Daphna and Liam's Jewish relatives? Is he wanting a break from the traditions ingrained in him all of his life? (If that's the case, why is he wanting to use the "Chai" medallion for his proposal? I also wonder: Did he actually steal the medallion somehow?)

Harmon's dialogue is brutally funny. And best of all are some of the strongest monologues in modern times, brilliant pieces that play out like songs in a musical. I wish they had been blocked that way. My main quibble with this production of BAD JEWS is that the staging seems haphazard, the characters journeying around without motivation, just moving from Point A to Point B without real reasoning.

Also, oftentimes in this production, the actors face the audience rather than each other when they're talking; I know that this is done so that we're not watching the backs of actors' heads, but it needs to be staged so that this isn't so obviously rendered. It seems forced here (especially with the Melody character, facing us while speaking, then turning to the other actor when she's not talking) and takes away from the actors connecting to one another. I see this a lot in middle school shows and community theatre musicals, the actors having to forcefully "cheat out" and talk or sing to the audience rather than each other, but this isn't Strange Interlude. These actors in this specific show are so good that they don't need to do this.

The ending, which I won't give away here, is immensely powerful, but I think it was too abruptly handled. I think a slow fade of the light would have been more effective (if possible with the lighting equipment for the outdoor setting). Also, the choice of music was head-scratching, and I'm still trying to figure out what "Radio Ga-Ga" has to do with BAD JEWS.

We have to use our imagination with the set as well. It's quite cluttered (I know that there is no other choice in the small outdoor space), so when Melody says the apartment "is so nice," we really have to suspend our disbelief. At first it looks more like a junkie's lair rather than a "nice" apartment. (Some kind of upstage walls to mute some of the distracting noise would have been a benefit as well.) As for the sound system, the microphones kept going in and out. This usually happens at outdoor venues (watch any one of the American Stage in the Park shows at Demens Landing for several examples of this), but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

I certainly enjoyed Vivid Theatre's BAD JEWS, even watching it in less-than-ideal circumstances. It's a great script with a fine cast, a fast 75 minutes. Hats off to Drew Eberhard and his cast for bringing this show to life during one of the most difficult times in our history. We need it so much. This production proves that theatre can live anywhere, that it survives and sustains. Watching BAD JEWS this weekend, we know for sure, and are reassured, that art carries on, even when a horrifying pandemic tries with all its might to quell it.

BAD JEWS, produced by Vivid Theatre Productions with Tampa's JCC & Federation, plays on the "J Stage" at the JCC on the Cohn campus for only two more performances: Sunday, January 24th at 3:00 PM (which will be livestreamed) and 7:00 PM.

Photo by Beth Behner.

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