Have you ever begun watching a stage production that seems from the outset like it’s going to be funny, warm, and harmlessly charming? Such can aptly describe the opening scene from the taut, fireplug-type masterpiece that is Bad Jews – if you hadn’t already allowed yourself the privilege of seeing it at the Segal Centre last year. But much like the probable outcome of an unexpected thundercloud moving in on an otherwise sunny day, a lightning bolt soon descends upon an enraptured audience enjoying the witty repartee between two cousins and industrial strength umbrellas will soon be required. An ear-shattering family explosion – or perhaps implosion is the better term – is on the horizon when the other two principal players make their appearance, and it is only a matter of time before old scabs and wounds get re-opened in a gripping, emotional genealogical tornado that punctuates the long-awaited, much-heralded return of Bad Jews to the Segal Centre after a rousing tour de force the last time around.
The title itself, just at first glance or mention, of Joshua Harmon’s Little Masterpiece That Could seems or sounds a bit uncomfortable without knowing the context or content of what’s to come. But that is how Bad Jews has likely been designed: to provocatively make one think – about their own families, about hidden pain within and the impact those closest to us not only have on the superficial aspects of our lives, but the knockout blows to our psyches if we avoid keeping vigilant and in touch with the nature of that pain. Artistic and Executive Director of the Segal Centre Lisa Rubin asks us to do just that as she directs the off-course family cruise ship into gripping landlocked theatre territory.
It’s the story of two brothers and their cousin coming together for their grandfather’s funeral, and three very distinctive personalities at that, which come stampeding out the gate when the question of who will receive a precious family heirloom from the dearly departed. Dysfunctionality among families has become a cliché in the last quarter century, but prepare for the possibility of having it redefined as scars one would not have known existed begin to become giant open wounds in this incredible presentation that has audience members super-glued to their seats. The powerful, aggressive stage presence emoted, and emitted, expertly by Jamie Elman as worldly, secular Liam Haber, pitted against Sarah Segal-Lazar’s searing knife-through-butter turn as his pious and rather outspoken cousin Daphna – well, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to be waiting for the stage floor to open and swallow the two down into a gladiator’s pit replete with swords and lions. The nuanced performance of Jake Goldsbie as Jonah (Liam’s younger brother), the jittery, non-confrontational “man in the middle” expertly smooths out the rough environmental edges all around, and throw in Ellen Denny’s beyond charming and endearing performance as Liam’s non-Jewish girlfriend Melody, and the nitro and glycerin prepare to come together in an almost cataclysmic juxtaposition of warring familial factions. It’s simply a can’t-miss production, likely why it was in demand to be experiencing a much-anticipated encore at the Segal Centre.
Assistant Director Caitlin Murphy pairs up exquisitely well with Rubin in keeping the flow, pace, and rhythm of this War of the (Small) Worlds moving along crisply, yet infusing it with staccato shock moments that simply rivet audiences. The expertly crafted set design and fantastic costuming contrast creations of Brian Dudkiewicz create just the right setting for the pending big boom when the mega-merry-go’ round of psychic pain and inner exploration comes to a sudden, screeching halt.
Bad Jews is a deeply affecting exploration of faith, as it is of the universal condition of the family unit, of words unsaid and conflicts unresolved. It includes a healthy sprinkling of love, loneliness, and retreat into the self. And it will leave an indelible impression on those fortunate enough to witness it. Thankfully, the Segal Centre is allowing us that second chance. Bad Jews runs through November 26th. Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944 .