Culture Buzz Theatre Review: ‘Bad Jews’ liberally exercises the use of deadly verbal ‘sticks and stones’

A theatre review by John Busbee of the Culture Buzz

October 9, 2015

The provocatively titled play that is sweeping across America, Bad Jews, makes its Iowa premiere as StageWest Theatre Company begins its new season at the Kum & Go Theater. The foundation for StageWest’s productions – bold plays, adventurous audiences – makes this dynamic show a memorable opening choice for a season filled with premieres.

While StageWest is known for edgy, challenging theatre fare, Director Todd Buchacker did his due diligence in vetting this show well in advance of its first curtain. He took the script to Rabbi Edelman-Blank for his response. The Rabbi gave it a hearty endorsement, stating that Bad Jews “is a powerful play that acts as a magnifying glass for important issues of religion and identity, particularly among young people.”

The old adage about what’s in a name is deceptive in Joshua Harmon’s brilliant dissection of humanity’s heritage versus its assimilation. Harmon deftly demonstrates his ability to observe and powerfully process his generation’s conflicted position when the heat of a shrinking world threatens to melt the mosaic of cultures into a singular mass. Don’t attend this show seeking answers; do attend for a vibrant journey into a complex landscape as presented by a talented quartet of actors under superb direction and embraced by a gifted production team.

Bad Jews drops three Jewish first cousins and one shiksa girlfriend into a sodium-meets-water setting, resulting in an emotional volatility to match such a chemical reaction. Consider Tim Wisgerhof’s magnificent Manhattan penthouse setting as more of a WWE steel cage deathmatch setting. Harmon understands the human psyche perhaps only too well, and delivers an unvarnished glimpse at what may lurk in each of us, in some form or other. During this post-funeral gathering of the cousins’ grandfather, Poppy, the intense energies focus on his heirloom chai, a medallion necklace he hid under his tongue during his Holocaust survival. What unfolds during this 90-minute one act production will linger long past the final curtain, as well it should be.

Buchacker blends diverse ingredients of talent together into a signature, successful dish. As Jonah, Ian Shields embraces his steadfast non-committal role with the strength of a wind-whipped dandelion seed. Whenever pushed, he retreats, and his cousin, Daphna, pushes a lot. In that role, Rachel Salowitz is an unfiltered motor-mouth and brings an unyielding defiance to anyone and anything that stands in her way. An underpinning for her volatility partially lies with how casually Jonah accepts his loft, which was given to him by his parents. The opening sequence between these two sets up the entrance of Jonah’s brother, Liam, and his girlfriend, Melody. When Liam, brilliantly played by Brian Vaughn, comes face-to-face with his cousin, Daphna, the air crackles with potential explosiveness. Their exchanges are not witty banter and ooo-I-gotcha interplay. Their words carry the brutal power of sticks and stones wielded with rage. If these words physically materialized, paramedics would be needed in the wings. Melody, whose character develops nicely thanks to Angela Stettler, represents a cultural intrusion from Daphna perspective, and the new direction of the world as far as Liam is concerned.

The standout in this stellar cast is Vaughn, whose taut, explosive attack mode coupled with an elemental power in his physicality and delivery, realizing this script’s full potential through his delivery.

Praise may sound broken-record-ish, but Wisgerhof imbues his scenic designs with the full sense of each show’s script with which he works. Bad Jews is a tutorial in creating a totally believable Manhattan studio loft. The added element of drawing the incoming audience into the moment by having them travel down a tiled floor with other apartment doors along the way, leading to the set, is marvelous. Jim Trenberth’s lighting is good, although there were times when slow fades were misleading, especially towards the end of the show, leading to a sense of false ending. Sound Designer and Engineer Josh Jepsen is a strong rising star, crafting evocative and compatible music and sound elements which enhance, beguile and otherwise take this show to a higher level.

When produced at this level, it’s easy to understand why this script is the third most produced this past year. StageWest was wise to offer us Iowa’s premiere. Patrons would be wise to experience it.