Jews in Dire Straits on New York Stages

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Only in New York, kids, only in New York? The question (with all due respect to Cindy Adams) surfaces in the context of three current dramas dealing with profound Jewish issues.

Where else but in Manhattan are Jews traditionally regarded as core theater patrons-even today when that core group is aging and shrinking and doesn’t appear to be replaced by as ardent a younger contingent?

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Bad Jews
Mad Jews: Philip Ettinger, Molly Ranson,
Tracee Chimo and Michael Zegen

Obviously, there’s no handy answer to those queries. Nor is it immediately necessary to pursue those peripheral answers when suddenly there are three plays on view locally about pressing Jewish concerns that immediately call for the more concentrated scrutiny. They’re Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews at the Laura Pels, Donald Margulies’s The Model Apartment (first seen in 1995 and an Obie winner then) and Jack Canfora’s Jericho-the latter two both at 59E59 Theatres.

What marks the three as new and significantly different are their unflinching looks at-as the first of them implies in its title-what constitutes basic behavior in Jews, what constitutes essential belief. Even more notable is that each of the three takes a hard look at a different inflammatory issue. The works address thorny subjects that often have American Jews arguing among themselves-but often nervous about airing publicly.

What’s in a Definition?

In Bad Jews-which could just as easily have been called Good Jews (and thereby not rattle those Jews who habitually fear anything that might stoke anti-Semitism)-the argument carried on between at-odds cousins Daphna (born Diana; you get her point) and Liam really amounts to establishing the definition of a good Jew as opposed to the definition of a bad Jew.

The estranged cousins are encountered on the day following the funeral of their grandfather, a survivor of the camps. What they are shown contesting-as proof of their commitment to Judaism-is the Chai (for “life”) token the deceased man kept with him throughout his internment.

Both Daphna and Liam want it. Both fight for it. Both have the verbal goods to wage a bruising battle. Daphna feels she has the winning claim because she attended the funeral, whereas Liam insisted he was unable to arrive in time for it. Moreover, when Liam finally does show up, he has in tow his Gentile fiancée Melody-around whose neck he expects to drape the coveted heirloom.

The complainants carry on their fierce contest in front of Liam’s reticent brother Jonah and Melody. As they do, they spew the kinds of insults not easy to retract. In the pursuit of their selfish goals, they’re presented by playwright Harmon as going too damagingly far. At the same time, Harmon demonstrates by way of a denouement twist that the quiet Jonah has a purer devotion to his grandfather.

It’s then that he reveals his idea of how a “good” Jew behaves in contrast with a “bad” Jew-how someone who doesn’t parade doctrinaire beliefs or, to the contrary, flouts them fulfills the truly spiritual requirement. It’s a devastating development, and as the newcomer playwright presents it, he proves himself unafraid of firing big theatrical guns.

The Holocaust and Survival Guilt

The Model Apartment
Kathryn Grody and Mark Blum
in The Model Apartment
Photo by James Leynse

Margulies’s heated play, The Model Apartment, also appeared early in his career and before he won a Pulitzer Prize for the later (and less fiery) Dinner With Friends. Whereas Bad Jews begins with Daphna at a height of dudgeon from which she never descends, The Model Apartment starts as Max and Lola seem merely to be having typical marital disagreements as they poke around a Florida flat they’ve been loaned while the one they’ve purchased is finished.

Only when their obese and volatile daughter Debby bursts into the temporary home does it become clear that their move south was an attempt to leave her behind after years spent futilely trying to live peaceably with her. What also seems clear at the outset is if they hope to live anything like a contented life, escaping Debby is their sole recourse.

With Debby ricocheting through the impersonal abode, Margulies gradually lays out an apparently insoluble problem. Much of its roots are in Max’s and Lola’s pasts. They’re immigrants who, like Daphna’s grandfather, have survived Germany and World War II. Max waited out the conflict by hiding in the forest. Lola has a tattoo from her time in Bergen-Belsen, and for years she’s maintained she was friendly with Anne Frank.

What Margulies does so well is imply through the increasingly grim proceedings that Debby’s situation can’t be dismissed as her simply being a bad seed. Survival guilt is more the impetus for her besetting problems. Survival guilt goes some way towards explaining why Debby constantly attacks Max and why she’s taking up with the virtually illiterate Neil who also invades the new premises in pursuit of her.

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The fathomless insult with which Margulies is grappling-with which he has his characters grappling-is the potentially infinite extension of survival guilt. He’s concerned with how it’s passed on from generation to generation-how, just like Debby is inescapable for Lola and Max, the Holocaust aftermath reaches menacingly and inescapably into the future.

Next Year in Jerusalem or Palestine?

Jericho
Jill Eikenberry, Carol Todd, Andrew Rein, Kevin Isola, Eleanor Handley and Noel Joseph Allain in Jericho

The Jewish family celebrating Thanksgiving in Jericho (that’s Jericho, Long Island) gives an initial impression-comparable to that of Max and Lola in The Model Apartment-that their squabbles may be bitter but aren’t necessarily commonplace only to Jews. Ethan has brought new girlfriend Beth home to meet his mother and brother Josh. Josh, as it happens, is quarreling with his wife Jessica. Beth is still mourning her husband Alec, who perished in the Twin Towers on 9/11 but visits Beth in her fantasies.

The more that agitated Josh talks, however, the more the question of what a good Jew does in the modern world arises. Josh, it turns out, is planning to move to Israel. (So’s Harmon’s Daphna, by the way, to be with a boyfriend who might not exist.) Indeed, he’s fed up not only with Jessica, who keeps trying to call his buff, but also with what he sees as a soulless American society.

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As he discourses on his version of committed Judaism, he provokes the kind of distress that often alienates Jew from Jew. The mood only worsens when he learns that Beth is part Palestinian. That Ethan could bring a Palestinian into the house as a potential bride is-not unlike Daphna’s objection to Melody-unacceptable and unforgivable.

Although there are other dramatic obstacles in Canfora’s plot-Beth’s haunting by Alec-the divisive attitudes towards the Israel-Palestine conflict are mooted to an uncomfortable impasse here.

Why All the Tsouris?

Would a trio of plays like these examples arise simultaneously in a metropolis other than New York City? Or only in New York? Jews on Broadway, off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway stages are not new-with perhaps Clifford Odets’s 1935 Awake and Sing and The Diary of Anne Frank in 1955 the most prominent earlier examples and Fiddler on the Roof in 1964 the most globally remunerative. That’s not to mention the long-running 1920’s click, Abie’s Irish Rose, or, more significantly, the Yiddish theater when it thrived.

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(Last season, Richard Goldberg’s The Assembled Parties, which was nominated for the Tony and should have won, distinguished the Manhattan Theatre Club season. At the time a friend of mine quipped, “I never miss a chance to see Jews suffer on Central Park West.”)

Perhaps, though, the difference with Bad Jews, The Model Apartment and Jericho is that when plays about Jews by Jews get written, they’re often admired for their Jewish humor, but as Harmon, Margulies and Canfora go about their determined studies, they find little opportunity for laughs.

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Okay, yes, incessant Daphna’s outbursts are often darkly witty, but these three playwrights-suddenly so percussively among us-are probing much deeper wounds, the exploration of which leaves little time for comedy. Quite the opposite. Spectators leaving these three plays are more likely to be dazed by the hammers of hard-nosed truths than dazzled by the pings of aging stereotypical gags.

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