by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw
Speakeasy Stage Company
Boston Center for the Arts
South End, Boston
October 24 – November 29, 2014
With Alison McCartan (Daphna Feygenbaum), Alex Marz (Jonah Haber), Victor Shopov (Liam Haber), Gillian Mariner Gordon (Melody)
Daphna (Alison McCartan), a strongly identified young Jew, not quite yet graduated from Vassar, angles to get a special keepsake of her grandfather’s in the immediate wake of his death. She negotiates first with her cousin, Jonah (Alex Marz), in anticipation of a stronger response from Jonah’s brother, Liam (Victor Shopov). Liam arrives with his girlfriend, Wendy (Gillian Mariner), and the sparks between Daphna and Liam begin to fly. Jewish identity and cultural preservation are at the heart of the dispute, but there is ever so much more, deeply contorted, psychological manipulation that plays off the initial conflict.
This play is totally out there, and truly funny. The writing, put in the mouths of these twenty-somethings, is viscerally intense and often nasty. One does not expect people to actually say these things, but here they do. What makes the dialogue interesting is that it’s close enough to what many people on opposite sides of the Jewish cultural divide actually think to seem just a shade away from believable.
Two of the characters – Daphna and Liam – are complete psychological exhibitionists, not holding back on one iota of grievance or aggression. They are played with superb unrestraint by Alison McCartan, whose Daphna is a wild woman in extremis who aspires to be a rabbi and to live in Israel, and Victor Shopov, whose Liam is a vengefully overt competitor, determined not to let Daphna get his goat or to take center stage morally. Together, they make a wonderful pair of combatants, like George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. Here they are cousins, not spouses, but it doesn’t really matter.
As in Albee’s play, the buffer zone, here, is handled by the two relatively silent partners: Jonah, played with an unerring scarcity of words, but very eloquently nonetheless, by Alex Marz, and Melody, the only goy in the room, played with an almost courageous mousiness by Gillian Mariner. The great thing about the role, and Mariner pulls it off beautifully, is how she makes withdrawn modestly heroic. In the coda, playwright Harmon takes a narrative turn that retools that heroic frame in a very funny, but quite cynical, way, and not completely true to character.
Rebecca Bradshaw’s direction is first-rate. Everyone shines here. Alison McCaran gives a tour de force performance as the unbearable Daphna, and Victor Shopov is close behind as the equally repellent Liam. Alex Marz does a great job with eloquently silent Jonah, and Gillian Mariner is quaintly noble as the non-Jewish loner.
There is a book entitled Bad Jews and Other Stories (1999) by Gerald Shapiro that appears to have no relation to this play, except that its title story also takes place around a funeral. It’s a good title, whoever uses it. Here, Joshua Harmon makes the most of it, and with his unrestrained dialogue but compelling plot woven out of the strands of almost nothing, an incisively funny, and heartbreaking play, emerges.