Family legacy, identity & repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews

Rebecca Applebaum, Kristopher Turner & Daniel Krantz in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

We’re all invited to crash at Jonah and Liam’s as we pay our last respects to their grandfather in the Koffler Centre of the Arts’ production of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, directed by Michèle Lonsdale-Smith. Bad Jews opened last night in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace.

Set in an shoe box-sized NYC studio apartment, which Jonah (Daniel Krantz) and Liam’s (Kristopher Turner) parents bought so they could have a place to stay in their building during the funeral, Bad Jews takes us on an emotional journey as we get a taste of the repressed anger, hidden resentments, judgements and expectations of this family. The apartment becomes a physical representation of the claustrophobic, everyone in everyone else’s business that is the family dynamic—especially potent among this group of 20-somethings, who are in the midst of establishing their own lives and identities while they navigate parental, cultural and religious expectations.

We first meet Jonah, lounging on a double air mattress in his dress shirt, boxers and yarmulke, playing video games. The brothers’ cousin Daphna (Rebecca Applebaum) has been staying with him on the pull-out couch. It’s just after the funeral and there is a quiet, exhausted atmosphere as Daphna hangs up their clothes and attempts conversation. She’s pissed that Liam missed the funeral; he was in Aspen with his girlfriend, lost his phone and didn’t get the message in time, and is due that night, girlfriend in tow. There’s something of their grandfather’s that Daphna desperately wants; a precious family heirloom, a piece of jewellery given to their grandfather by his father and kept safely hidden during the Holocaust. She wants Jonah’s blessing; he doesn’t want it, but he’s unwilling to take sides and wants nothing to do with the decision.

When Liam arrives with his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Julia Vally), Jonah learns that not only does Liam want the treasured family heirloom, he’s already got it. Both Daphna and Liam have very good reasons for wanting the necklace; and both have very different approaches and perceptions toward their family’s Jewish traditions and faith. Coupled with perceptions of entitlement, family loyalty and being a ‘good’ Jew, things get ugly between them pretty fast. It’s clear these two already don’t like each other and the battle over their grandfather’s jewelry is steeped in long-term, ongoing resentment. Melody tries to act as mediator, but ultimately can’t break through—no wonder, as she’s just been introduced to the family and has no idea about the history behind the verbal savagery she’s witnessing. In the end, we’re left with just Jonah and Daphna again—only now, the tone and atmosphere of their conversation is quite different. And further revelations emerge after the cathartic blow-out.

Lovely work from the cast in this claustrophobic and caustic dark comedy. As director Lonsdale-Smith pointed out during the post-show talkback, anger is motivated by fear; the fear of letting people go, death, identity, how we may take a different path from our parents—and these characters are angry. Krantz does a beautiful job with the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Jonah’s complexity and inner conflict. Jonah gives the impression of being checked out and disinterested, and perhaps even not as smart as his older brother and cousin, but he’s aware and listening—and he feels things more deeply than you might think as he struggles with his grief. Applebaum, who identifies as mixed race (half Asian, raised Jewish), used her lived experience to bring scope to her laser-focused performance as the sharply intellectual, self-righteous Daphna. A super observant Jew, and a Vassar student bound for Israel, rabbinical school and the army, Daphna is always looking for a debate, if not an outright fight. Constantly on the lookout for fault in others, Daphna’s devotion is of the holier than thou, selectively fundamentalist variety—but much of this is a shield for a deeply wounded, lonely soul.

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Rebecca Applebaum, Julia Vally & Kristopher Turner in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

Turner brings a ferocity and intellectual vigour to Liam, who’s chosen a more secular path and even changed his name. The eldest son of a well-off family, there’s more than a whiff of entitlement about Liam, and his anger is vicious when it erupts; however, his wish to mirror a gift their grandfather made to their grandmother reveals the depth of his love and appreciation for family and for Melody. Vally gives a great sense of firmness and strength to the sweet-natured, genuinely good Melody. A former opera student who loves music, but in the end decided that career path wasn’t for her, Melody is an administrator at a non-profit organization—helping others is in her blood, but she can’t seem to help Liam’s family issue. How could she?

Ultimately, as Turner mentioned toward the end of the talkback, this is a play about family—the history, the love, and intellectual and emotional dynamic that twists and turns across generations and through time. And nothing brings out the good, bad and the ugly like family, especially during meaningful, emotionally fraught family gatherings.

Family legacy, identity and repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews.

Bad Jews continues in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace until June 4; get your advance tix online via the show page or through Eventbrite. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate venue, fitting with the cramped space of an NYC studio apartment.

SummerWorks: Beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order & mental illness in Complex

complexBumped into actor Tim Walker at the Lower Ossington Theatre on the weekend and found out about Complex, written by Rebecca Applebaum and directed for SummerWorks by Christopher Stanton in partnership with the Koffler Centre of the Arts – and I’m really glad I did.

Set in modern-day Toronto, the title makes multiple references: the Chalkfarm apartment that Darren (Mazin Elsadig) shares with his mother Althea (Beryl Bain); complex number theory, which Darren is playing catch-up on with tutor Sarah (Emily Piggford); and the relationships between Sarah and her live-in boyfriend Jonah (Tim Walker), who’s living with OCD, as well as Darren and his mother, who is suffering from severe depression after the death of her mother – and, as the play unfolds, between Darren and Sarah.

The story in Complex features stark contrasts of class divide, illustrated by the assumptions Sarah makes about Darren’s neighbourhood, activities and relationship with his mother, and about mental illness – both Sarah and Darren struggle to understand the conditions of their respective loved ones. While Sarah and Darren long for order in their lives, Jonah and Althea occupy a different world, grappling with their own inner demons and realities.

Excellent work from this cast! Bain is heartbreaking as the bereft Althea, lost in her grief and confused by her son’s anger and frustration at her debilitating desolation; and Elsadig does a lovely job balancing Darren’s youthful energy with the more adult burdens of looking after his mother – and the conflicting emotions therein. Piggford’s Sarah, like Darren, is frustrated with her loved one’s mental condition, even as she struggles to be supportive and understanding; and she does a great – at times comic – job of capturing the behaviours of an educated, privileged young adult trying to be chill with a low-income teen from a troubled neighbourhood. Walker’s Jonah is a good guy with an infuriating condition, obsessed with the apartment’s locks and fully aware of Sarah’s frustration, and trying to stay positive as he embarks on a group therapy program at CAMH.

Shouts to the design team: set (Laura Gardner), lighting (Siobhán Sleath) and sound (Lyon Smith) for creating the high-energy – at times overwhelmingly busy – urban atmosphere for Complex; the scrim-covered flats, built on PVC pipe frames and sprayed with graffiti, are particularly clever, delivering visual impact and creating cool shadow effects, as well as doubling as set pieces.

Complex is a beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order, math theory and mental illness.

The show continues at the Lower Ossington Theatre until Sun, Aug 17 – check here for dates/times.