Director Burt Tepfer believes the biggest problem people have when facing the new play he is directing, a dark comedy about the nature of Jewish identity by Joshua Harmon, is its title.
“‘Bad Jews’ was such a provocative title that when posters for a production in Great Britain were displayed in the London Underground there were cries of outrage and all had to be taken down,” Tepfer says.
In reality, the name isn’t anti-semitic at all. The expression “bad jew” is used by some Jewish people themselves about others of their own race, religion, and culture.
“Among Jewish people, a ‘good Jew’ is a Jew who embraces the rituals, language, cultural, and religious traditions of their Jewish heritage whereas a ‘bad Jew’ rejects those traditions,” Tepfer says.
“Bad Jews” opens July 29 at the Actors Theatre Playhouse. The cast includes Xoe Perra, Jonathan Reid, Kristina Meima, and Elias Burgess.
It is the first play by Harmon, a graduate of Northwestern University, Carnegie Mellon, and Juilliard, where he worked with acclaimed playwrights Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman.
His play premiered Off-Broadway in October 2012 at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Black Box Theatre and earned nominations for best play from the Outer Critics Circle and the Lucille Lortel awards.
“Bad Jews” was the third most-produced play in America in the 2014-2015 season, and has been produced all over the world. This production at ATP is its Southern Vermont premiere.
“Joshua Harmon’s ‘Bad Jews’ is a smashingly venomous and blisteringly funny tale of a family tearing itself apart with wit, fury, serious debate, and uproarious hilarity right in front of our eyes,” Tepfer writes in a news release.
When four college-age kids convene at a New York City Riverside Drive apartment for the funeral of a beloved grandfather and family patriarch who had been a Holocaust survivor, two of his grandchildren fight over who should get an inheritance — a very special piece of family jewelry, a Chai (“Life”) necklace, which is imbued with special significance. Poppy hid it in his mouth throughout his internment in the camps during the Holocaust.
Each believes the necklace should be bequeathed to him or her, and no one else. These cousins with deeply held convictions argue over this disputed family heirloom. The one cousin is an observant Jew who intends to move to Israel. The other is very secular, who has minimal ties to his Jewish background and plans to give the piece of jewelry to his non-Jewish girlfriend (another character in the play).
Both want this tangible symbol of the family’s survival through the holocaust, and are willing to come to blows both verbally, and briefly, physically.
Exploring different perspectives
“The stakes are high and things get inflammatory and vicious,” says Tepfer. “Sparks do fly in this no-holds-barred confrontation where all punches are pulled.”
Tepfer likes plays that take varying sides of an issues, cogently putting full arguments forward, without taking sides.
“‘Bad Jews’ is a play that doesn’t tell you what to think at the end,” he says. “There are no easy answers. None of the characters are admirable; in fact all are pretty nasty. Since you don’t like any of them, one isn’t drawn to align with one side or another. Both sides have cogent things to say that are substantial and reasonable.”
Yet “Bad Jews” is no mere play of ideas.
Tepfer however wants to remind people that the play is a comedy. “It is blisteringly and scaldingly funny,” he says. “While the play often makes people wince it is also hilarious, but has a bite.”
Tepfer first discovered Harmon’s play after seeing a poster for a production when passing through Boston, and the title intrigued him. He made a point to see the show during a visit to England.
“I saw the production in London and fell in love with its feisty and hilarious fun while at the next moment the piece is exploring serious questions of young people dealing with their cultural identity,” Tepfer says.
Jewish himself, he found the issues discussed in the play personally resonant.
Defined by a historical moment
“I was brought up basically as a secular (or bad) Jew,” he explains. “My grandmother spoke Yiddish — in fact, only spoke Yiddish — but my father disengaged from his Jewish culture. I have found myself back to my heritage but not in a zealous way.”
Tepfer was born during the Holocaust.
“One is defined by that historical moment, and I find myself constantly figuring out what it represented or meant,” he says. “As for most Jewish people, the Holocaust is a vivid reminder to value Jewish survival. How to preserve my Jewish identity has consequently become important, not least for being able to tell Hitler, ‘You were not successful.’”
Although it is deeply concerned with forms of Jewish identity, Tepfer believes Harmon’s play isn’t just for Jewish people.
“‘Bad Jews’ has a broader appeal since it tackles issues of who we are, with which everyone struggles,” he says. “It asks whether a person should cling to one’s heritage or embrace the new identity, that of being an American. We all have to consider how much we want to honor our heritage.”
Tepfer thinks that college kids (the age of the characters in this play) are particularly open to this issue, and are often struggling with identity. “This is a play that exhorts us to be the most authentic to ourselves, to be who we are,” he says.
Tepfer writes, “In 2016, how much do young adults identify with the cultural and religious traditions they have inherited? Some align closely with their family’s observances and history while others wish to shed their Jewishness and move fully into America’s melting pot.
‘Everybody comes from somewhere’
“Harmon is probing what it means to be Jewish in the early years of the Facebook-infused 21st century, when the politics of religious and cultural identity have never been more visible or frequently expressed, people more easily offended, nor friends more easily customized to provide ‘likes’ and supportive comments on demand.
“For the Facebook Generation, how much of your past should dictate your 21st century present? After all, everybody comes from somewhere.”
As it deals with these weighty concerns, what Tepfer finds so wonderful in “Bad Jews” is its seamless shifting from uproarious comedy to serious discussion and argument, and back again.
“The play is so very well written, that it can be a hilarious comedy and a thought provoker at the same time,” he says. “I wanted to explore how one directs such material.”
But precisely because of these shifts in tone, such a play can be a hard work to direct.
“A well-written work helps a director make all these transitions which can become cumbersome in a poorly-written play, but even so, you need a wonderful cast to pull it off, which I have.” Tepfer says. “But getting such a cast is easier said than done. In this area, it’s difficult enough to find capable actors in their early 20s, not to mention those with the capacity to do these roles.
“I am fortunate to have this cast, each of whom is willing to take the challenge on and work to understand the ideas ‘Bad Jews’ explores. Sometimes I help explain character motivations and conflicts to them, but they are working their way into understanding these complex parts with instincts of their own.”