By Bill Hirschman
One of the joys of seeing local theater over the years is charting a new theater’s growth and promise. But it’s rare to see a fledgling theater develop so quickly as Main Street Players, as evidenced by its no-excuses-needed production of Bad Jews.
Fledgling may be the wrong word. The Miami Lakes company has been a community theater for 42 years, but this vitriolic comedy-drama examining religion and assimilation among Gen Xers is only its third professional production.
Following its second solid show, Marjorie Prime last April, MSP is building a clear trend as a company to watch.
A young but surprisingly capable cast, guided smoothly but carefully by Artistic Director Robert Coppel, totally inhabits this internecine battle as two cousins uninhibitedly wield fire hoses spewing torrents of sulphuric acid at each other, with considerable collateral damage to those around them.
But the tumult is not simply to produce theatrically satisfying uproar. The clash in Joshua Harmon’s 2012 script examines young adults inheriting the responsibility of their ethnic or religious history in a 21st Century more interested in assimilating than in adopting outdated traditions. The set up creates as inevitable an explosion as two people with flamethrowers struggling in a dynamite factory.
Hours after the funeral of their grandfather, the voluble hyper-judgmental Diana (Hannah Benitez) is crashing with her tamped down cousin Jonah (Matthew Ferro) in his studio apartment on the west side of Manhattan. Diana has imbued every waking moment and every other sentence proclaiming her Jewishness, even adopting the name Daphna. She plans to go to Israel in preparation to become a rabbi. At the moment, she is furious that Jonah’s brother Liam (Joseph Paul Pino) missed the funeral because he had been in Vail with his shiksa girlfriend Melody (Kimmi Johnson).
Diana/Daphna seeks Joshua’s support before an impending argument with Liam about who inherits their grandfather’s iconic gold Chai charm that he hid under his tongue for two years in a concentration camp.
Sure enough, the errant couple arrive. The tightly-wound Liam has cast off any connection to his family’s faith, although he acknowledges the tragedy of the Holocaust that his grandfather survived.
Liam and Daphna do not spar; they unleash lengthy tirades invoking every slight, every character flaw, every off-limits vulnerability that only relatives know to exploit. She sees him as inexcusably self-serving, blithely jettisoning his heritage. He views her as a hypocritical poseur using the externals of Judaism to fill a more profound hole in her life.
Jonah has seen this persist for years and studiously does not want to get involved. Melody, a sweet amiable soul, tries to navigate this typhoon. Trying to be a peacemaker, she says, “I really don’t see why any of it matters, you know? Where people come from? People are just people.” An enraged Daphna retorts, “It doesn’t matter for you; you aren’t Jewish” and later “If I stop, if we all stop, it will be gone. And you can’t get it back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Into this incendiary equation appears the match to the explosive: Liam wants to use the Chai to propose to Melody just as his grandfather had done to his beloved in lieu of a ring. The Chai (the Hebrew word for life) symbolizes for Liam their family’s personal history, and for Daphna, a legacy of six millennia of faith and survival — not to mention a trophy in their ongoing feud. The impossible to reconcile conundrum rips open whatever hope there might be for a separate peace.
What a plot summary does not communicate is how boundlessly funny this is. The remarks may cut with merciless accuracy but they are expressed with exceeding wit and intelligence. And if the unbridled venom is unnerving, the ludicrous extremity that these characters go to is hilarious in itself.
Coppel worked with this non-Equity cast part-time for five weeks and the result is smooth and calibrated performances within a carefully-staged and paced production that unreels in 90 minutes of real time. The outbursts are leavened with quiet moments and even a warm interval of comity as the relatives recall a bonding incident from their past.
The showiest role is Benitez’s tour de force as the quirky, jittery and neurotic Daphna, nervously toying with her unruly hair and operating like a verbal open fire hydrant. Benitez has worked in South Florida a little while, but she may be best known for her gentle vulnerable heroine in Slow Burn Theatre’s Dogfight – the inverse of this character. She creates a force of nature driven by a black hole inside herself. You might want to feel a little sorry for Daphna, but her heedless slash and burn tactics make it difficult.
Still, Benitez and Daphna have a worthy opponent in Pino’s Liam who long ago jettisoned his Hebrew name of Schlomo. Pino has built a recognizable 20-something for whom the mumbo jumbo of religion is simply not a part of his pragmatic calculations. His Liam is every bit as articulate and nimbly intelligent as Daphna. Liam may be driven by his love for Melody, but Pino makes it clear that Liam is also determined to come out on top of this battle with Daphna. Perhaps a bit of self-justification in his cultural choice also is at risk in this struggle.
Johnson is perfectly cast as a decent human being who has walked into a cage fight laced with hidden land mines to gingerly sidestep. Her guileless open face mirrors Melody’s good-hearted nature. Ferro has the least pyrotechnic role, but he communicates the depth of someone who has lived in a war zone for too long. He and Pino’s work is so convincing that it’s hard to believe that this production marks the first professional performances for both recent New World grads.
Harmon’s script is as incisive as tray of a surgeon’s scalpels. Liam screeds, “I know she wishes she were this, like, barbed-wire-hopping, Uzi-toting Israeli warlock superhero Daphna — but actually, Diana Feygenbaum grew up in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, in an armpit town doing swim team badly and hysterically sobbing when she didn’t get picked to be cheerleader. . . . She’s as Israeli as Martin van f***ing Buren.’’
But Daphna skewers Liam’s Ph.D. focus on contemporary Japanese youth culture “because studying Japan is definitely worthy of five years of intensive labor, but studying Torah for all of 10 minutes is only worthy of total utter snide sniveling disdain; if you found yourself in the middle of a rain dance you would be sooo respectful, trying to do every movement perfectly to, like, honor every Native American who ever lived, but if you found yourself in the middle of a hora — I’ve seen you in the middle of a hora — you look like you want to f***ing die.’’
If there is fine-tuning needed, perhaps it’s that the acerbic characters seem a bit over-the-top. But chalk it up to legitimate theatrical license or, better yet, rest assured that many audience members will recognize relatives only a few notches more palatable. One bit of advice: The final moment of the play is crucial and might be played down front instead of at the back of the set.
Most of the companies who have used this tiny storefront space over the years have had limited budgets and the sets have not been terribly impressive. But MSP is erasing those memories. Scenic Designer Amanda Sparhawk and a crew of builders and painters have created a perfectly believable living space. The faithfulness of the company is such that it has decorated a long hallway on house right that goes all the way to the back of the set—something that not a dozen people in the audience can see.
The script made a memorable local debut at GableStage in 2014 with a bravura turn by Natalia Coego as Daphna. But MSP has delivered its own spin that should encourage theatergoers to return for future productions.
Bad Jews runs through August 13 from Main Street Players, 6766 Main Street, Miami Lakes. Performances 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets $30 for adults; $25 for seniors, students and military. Visit http://www.mainstreetplayers.com/tickets/