Journalists writing about a play usually aren’t invited to see the actors perform until opening night. But 11 days before the Toronto premiere of Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon’s hit play, I arrive at the Small World Music Centre to watch a rehearsal.
The stage is bare, except for two chairs, where actors Rebecca Applebaum, who plays Daphna, and Kristopher Turner (portraying her cousin, Liam), sit. The actors are positioned with their legs spread and backs arched, staring down the other.
Every couple of minutes, director Michèle Lonsdale Smith, sitting by the front of the stage, leans in and reminds the actors to breathe.
Applebaum and Turner are quizzing each other. She says something vulnerable, but he looks disappointed.
“I don’t believe you,” Turner spits back.
Seconds later, Applebaum tries again, hoping to express something her co-star will accept as more truthful.
Lonsdale Smith often interrupts the session, pressing the actors to probe more deeply.
Sitting a few rows back from the stage, I’m not sure whether this interview session is done in character or is an exercise for the actors to reveal personal truths.
Lonsdale Smith tells me later that afternoon that it is a bit of both.
“It’s just telling the truth to the person in front of me,” she says.
Nevertheless, it is a challenge for any person to get to the core of their humanity. Lonsdale Smith , who has taught acting for nearly 18 years, says she has used this exercise for years.
However, it is only recently that she has allowed the public to come in and witness this creative process.
“What [the actors are] bringing to it, their own lives… gives us their brew underneath,” she says. “You’re just making sure that there’s a willingness to reveal the brew.”
Other productions of Bad Jews, including one staged at Montreal’s Segal Centre last spring, have been lauded for their dark comedy. In comparison, the recitations from this rehearsal are moving.
The actors can stir each other’s emotions, but one question lingers. Will the play be funny?
“I’m afraid that it’s going to be deep and real, and everybody’s going to be bummed out,” Lonsdale Smith says, admitting that she is nervous about audiences expecting broad hysterics.
“Even Harmon says, I didn’t write a comedy,” she adds.
Bad Jews unfolds over one evening in a New York apartment, which belongs to the family of Liam and his younger brother, Jonah (Daniel Krantz). Their cousin Daphna, an outspoken and devout Jewish woman, resents Liam for not coming to their grandfather’s funeral earlier that day.
Liam wants to collect the late grandfather’s Chai necklace, which was kept hidden during the Holocaust. To make matters more unpredictable, Liam has brought his girlfriend Melody (Julia Vally), who is not Jewish, to the apartment – and he wants to present her the heirloom when he proposes.
The drama arises from Daphna and Liam’s vastly different opinions about Jewish identity. She is more traditional, while he is secular. Some of the more histrionic behaviour has resulted in criticism, with much of it directed toward Daphna, who some see as a Jewish caricature.
Lonsdale Smith says she knows about this stereotyping and hopes to move far away from those depictions of the character.
“[Daphna is] not any different from me,” Lonsdale Smith says. “She is just brave enough to say out loud what she’s thinking.”
In these exercises, Lonsdale Smith says that there is an effort among her and Applebaum to get to the roots of why Daphna behaves in the way she does.
“We all behave badly, and we all have some kind of genesis of that bad behaviour. If we mine the genesis… then it doesn’t come out as stereotypical,” she says. “When it’s acted badly, that’s when I’m polarized or separated from [the character].”
The director says she wanted to stage Bad Jews due to the universality of the themes. Even though the play is about characters delving into debates over Jewish identity, she insists the play is about family.
“I have to be honest… That’s my family,” she explains.
Lonsdale Smith shows me a bracelet on her wrist, and explains that there were fights with people in her family over a gold bracelet just like it.
Before three of the performances, audiences will be invited into the Koffler Gallery space for Life in Orchestra, where they can watch actors (including the Bad Jews ensemble) participate in this searing creative process, akin to the one I witnessed at the rehearsal.
“People can handle it,” Lonsdale Smith says, after admitting it has taken her some time to warm to the idea of letting the audience see this process.
Still, Lonsdale Smith bristles at the show’s title, which she says she doesn’t like.
“Daphna’s not the bad guy, Liam’s not the bad guy. Everybody’s just human. We behave badly when the stakes are high. And at the core level, we’re the same.”
Bad Jews runs from May 26 to June 4 at the Small World Music Centre, with previews on May 25. Life in Orchestra will be presented two hours before the evening shows on June 1 and 2, and at 5pm and 6pm on June 3. There will also be talkbacks with the cast and crew after each performance.