Claustrophobia may be a sensation you think you’d never appreciate, but with the Segal Centre production of Bad Jews, which finished a terrific run yesterday May 29, it pins audiences to their seats and they love every minute.
The feeling of being cornered starts when you hand your ticket to the usher and are funnelled along a facsimile of a tight apartment hallway complete with numbered doors.
The red fire extinguisher hung along the way will be metaphorically needed to extinguish the fiery family conflagration you are about to witness.
It’s not all high drama, and there are plenty of laughs, but those who were singed by opening night said they physically felt their blood pressure rise. That Bad Jews elicits such a physical reaction proves this is, thus far, the best play of the season.
The storyline by playwright Joshua Harmon is so realistic that almost every family has experienced a similar situation, that of wrangling over an estate. Each viewer can take it to heart and feel the characters’ sense of entitlement and anxiety.
But the play is more than about petty jealousies. It’s about the very definition of Judaism.
After the passing of their beloved grandfather, three cousins gather in the cramped studio apartment of the youngest. Extra mattresses laid cheek by jowl to accommodate the guests squeeze them and the eldest cousin’s girlfriend into closer quarters than they would like.
They literally have to wade through blankets and pillows to move in the room, like slogging through a swamp of resentment.
Emotions boil over when Daphna, played with abrasive, motor-mouth energy by Sarah Segal-Lazar, and Liam, interpreted with cutting cool by Jamie Elman (you may remember him from YidLife Crisis, or as a columnist for The CJN), both lay claim to their zaide’s chai pendant that survived the Holocaust with him.
Daphna feels it is her birthright because she is the most attuned to her Judaism and plans to make aliyah. Liam, a secular intellectual, claims it because he feels he can relive its trajectory after the war and the symbolism is perfect for his purpose.
Hapless Jonah, played sweetly but at times with deer-in-the-headlights excess by Jake Goldsbie, has his opinion. However, he wants to remain neutral in the face of the firestorm that’s about to erupt between his brother and Daphna.
Thrown into the fray is Liam’s ditsy non-Jewish girlfriend Melody, an opera singer wannabe turned do-gooder played with charm and forbearance by Victoria Diamond. Their interactions measure the pulse of modern Judaism.
Viewers hear all sides of the argument and feel as conflicted as the characters, watching with growing angst to see who will win the tug-of-war.
The cast’s greatest achievement, especially Segal-Lazar’s, is to make unlikable characters sympathetic. Daphna is a self-righteous, obnoxious young woman, yet much of her reasoning hits a deep chord. Liam’s inclination to divest himself of his Jewishness is increasingly common and painful to hear. Yet each has something to teach the other.
Harmon proves the strength of love when, during a lull in the conflict, the three cousins manage to render one another helpless with laughter over a shared memory.
Lisa Rubin in her superb directorial debut helps audiences balance on the wire between love and hate. She brilliantly pressurizes emotions until steam escapes and then tosses her actors about in the tube-like space with singular purpose.
Fight director Robert Montcalm cushions the blows.
Brian Dudkiewicz is the set designer who has collectively compacted both cast and audience with such efficacy. Dmitri Marine’s sound gives the high-rise its big-city atmosphere and Itai Erdal lights the action that will illuminate the heart of what it means to be Jewish.
The play does not provide pat answers, but by the end, a point is made about what’s important, and you will leave the theatre shaken but sated.