Thursday, February 26, 2015

You Don't Have to be Jewish to Like "Bad Jews"

"Bad Jews" -- Long Wharf Theatre Stage II -- Thru March 22

                                      Keilly McQuail and Christy Escobar.
                                     All Photos by T. Charles Erickson

By Geary Danihy

Open any text on playwriting and in the first chapter you’ll likely come across this basic dictum: a play is about someone who wants something and someone who doesn’t want him to have it. All the rest is just icing on the cake. Joshua Harmon, whose “Bad Jews” recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre Stage II, has obviously taken those words of dramatic development to heart – with a vengeance. The result is a somewhat uneven but thoroughly enjoyable one-act play that offers enough verbal fireworks to light up a Fourth of July sky.

The setting is an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (scenic design by Antje Ellermann) that belongs to college student Jonah Haber (Max Michael Miller). Actually, his parents, who live on the same floor, bought it for him, but he’s not complaining. He normally lives alone, but he currently has a guest, for his grandfather, Poppy, has just died, and his cousin, Daphna (Kelly McQuail) has come down from Vassar for the funeral. There will be more guests, for his brother, Liam (Michael Steinmetz) is flying in from a skiing vacation in Vail, bringing with him his latest girlfriend, Melody (Christy Escobar) for a family gathering to celebrate and honor the life of a revered patriarch. Yes? Well, not exactly, for this family – at least the members of the younger generation – are what you might call Hebraically dysfunctional.

                          Michael Steinmetz, Max Michael Miller and Keilly McQuail

Daphna wears her Jewishness on her sleeve, and anywhere else she can display it. She is an opinionated, arch, acid-tongued young woman who plans, perhaps, to immigrate to Israel, perhaps become a rabbi, perhaps marry a Jewish soldier, but what she definitely wants is her grandfather’s chai, a small, golden emblem that symbolizes “life.” There’s a back story to this particular piece of jewelry that involves the Holocaust and Poppy’s marriage, but it is also the play’s MacGuffin, for Daphna’s pursuit of this piece of jewelry is the motor that drives the play.

In contrast to Daphna, Liam (his Hebrew name is Shlomo) is apparently disdainful of Jewish tradition, especially as it is practiced in America, what he terms a watered down version of an original falsehood. A graduate student studying foreign cultures (currently Japanese), he bridles at the very thought of spending an evening in the same room with Daphna, as well he should, for he is carrying their grandfather’s chai, which he plans to give to Melody when he asks her to marry him. Melody, of course, is the quintessential shiksa, a young woman whose straight golden hair is in direct contrast to Daphna’s mare’s nest.

                                    Christy Escobar and Keilly McQuail

Thus the stage is set for confrontation, and it doesn’t take long for the knives to be unsheathed in the form of extended monologues and confrontations. These verbal pyrotechnics are the play’s strong points, and no one has a better time with them than McQuail, whose take on a pontificating Jewish princess is priceless. Often, all she needs to do is stare, arch her shoulders, slowly turn her head or roll her eyes to make her point, or jab a knife into soft flesh. Her initial entrance, however, is a bit confusing, or misleading, for the delivery of her first few lines might lead one to believe that her character is either mentally deficient or drunk – neither is the case.

Her character is counterbalanced by that of Liam’s, and Steinmetz also get’s a chance to orate and pontificate – his first monologue received enthusiastic applause on opening night, as much for the brio with which he delivered it as for its essential put-down of Daphna’s Hebraic holier-than-thou pose.

This is Daphna and Liam’s play, with Melody there as the Wasp shuttlecock that flies back and forth between the two cousins. Escobar does what she can with what Harmon has given her, and she has her moments, but it is Jonah’s character that seems all but superfluous, save for the play’s final moment, when the question arises as to who is most “Jewish” and who loved Poppy best. Thus, Miller has little to work with and finds himself often simply standing in place as the other characters have at each other. His character’s lack of development is striking – seldom does one come away from a play not knowing anything about a character who has been on the stage from almost curtain to curtain.

                                     Max Michael Miller and Keilly McQuail

As directed by Oliver Butler, “Bad Jews” is a verbal jousting match that is enjoyable on many levels, not the least of which is the inherent argument about what denotes, or connotes, Jewishness, and it’s relevancy in this century. Beyond that, the play’s main delight is the sweet venom that flows from Daphna, verbal poison that McQuail delivers with aplomb, style and a shark-like sense for the flow of blood. From the moment McQuail’s character enters from the bathroom she owns the stage, and she never gives it up as she stalks over rather than around furniture. You may not like Daphna, but you can’t take your eyes off her, and you can’t wait for her next verbal explosion (as long as you are not the target of the eruption).

This is early days for the production, so the cast has yet to totally discover where and when the audience will react with laughter. Thus, some lines are delivered before said reaction is over and are all but lost. This, one can only assume, will be corrected as the cast grows into the play. Many of the lines that can be heard are priceless: sharp, funny and thought-provoking, making “Bad Jews” a quite engaging evening of theater.

“Bad Jews” runs through March 22. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Familiar" Too Fraught with Themes

"Familiar" -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Feb. 21

                        Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Kimberly Scott in Familiar. 
                        All photos by Joan Marcus.

By Geary Danihy

As the old ad campaign says, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s,” and you don’t have to be African American, or Zimbabwean, for that matter, to like “Familiar,” a new play by Danai Gurira enjoying its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Slow to get off the ground and just a tad ponderous and preachy in its wrap-up, “Familiar” satisfies for most of its two acts, for it’s a familiar family saga of emotional conflict, heartbreak, misunderstandings, rivalries and, of course, laughter.
The play is set in suburban Minneapolis, circa 2010, but Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, suffuses the environment, for Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and her husband Donald (Harvey Blanks), though successfully living the good life in America -- she a biologist, he a lawyer -- are haunted by the land they once called home, though the nature of the spirits that lurk in the dark will not become manifest until well into the second act.

                               Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Harvy Blanks 

The play, directed by Rebecca Taichman, opens with the couple’s younger daughter, Nyasha (Shyko Amos), returning home from a trip to Zimbabwe. She has an attitude, primarily because her domineering mother doesn’t seem to appreciate her life pursuits – music and feng shui – but also because she hasn’t been included in her older sister’s bridal party. Tendikayi (Cherise Boothe), a lawyer, is about to marry Chris (Ross Marquand), a white man. It will be a traditional ceremony, but the question arises as to which tradition will be honored, for Annie (Kimberly Scott), Marvelous’s sister, has traveled from Zimbabwe ostensibly to see that Shona traditions are honored, which includes the groom gifting the bride’s family with a cow. There are a lot of arguments, and some of what is being argued about is lost because the actors often bite into each other’s lines (a directorial decision?), lines which often contain word or phrases from the Shona language. One can understand why Baba Tendi (Dad) just shrugs and retreats – there are moments when the audience, as well, simply doesn’t know what is going on.

Observing and archly commenting on this multi-lingual clash of cultures is Margaret (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), Marvelous’s second sister, who lives with the Chinyaramwiras, and dragged into the bridal negotiations overseen by Annie is Brad (Joe Tippett), Chris’s brother, fresh out of the Army.

                                    Ross Marquand and Cherise Boothe 

So, the stage is set for misunderstandings, family squabbles and cultural dysfunctions, which all work fairly well for the first act and most of the second, but Gurira has bigger fish to fry, for the dark spirits must rise, and when they do the play veers off into message-land, becomes a bit didactic, and ends with a scene reminiscent of old murder mysteries when the detective gathers all of the suspects into a room and solves the crime. Thus, instead of a dynamic ending, we have extended exposition, with many of the characters locked in place (Nyasha all but disappears behind a sofa – Annie is frozen on another sofa – Margaret spends most of the time shuffling her feet in front of the fireplace) as tales are told and the mystery is unraveled. It’s all capped by what is meant to be a touching scene of recognition between mother and daughter that rings hollow, for it is not earned.

                                         Shyko Amos and Joe Tippett 

The basic problem here is that if a mystery is to be solved, if revelations are to be part of the climax, then there has to be a hint of what is in play right from the start, else said mysteries and revelations seem forced. To work off an old Hitchcock insight that he offered in a conversation with Francois Truffaut, if a bomb is going to explode you have to let the audience know that a bomb has been placed. The latter part of “Familiar” is a series of bombs exploding, but who knew they were there? It’s the difference between suspense and surprise, and that difference goes to audience engagement and, if I can trundle out an overused word, catharsis.

Still, for most of the two-plus hours, “Familiar” satisfies and engages, with a faultless cast, chief among them Scott, whose take on the embittered Annie is often mesmerizing. She is able to weave multiple motivations into her actions, chief among them maintenance of heritage and greed. Her movements are precise and facial expressions evocative. Blanks does a nice job as the much put upon husband, only faltering slightly when he is asked to deliver one of the play’s “messages” – you get the feeling that he really doesn’t believe what his character is saying, especially since Baba Tendi so easily gives up his dream after a tongue-lashing from Marvelous. As the engaged couple, Boothe and Marquand work well together – although Tendi’s desperate demands for sex after one of the “bombs” has exploded seems out of character – and Ekulona’s Marvelous is a picture-perfect take on a matriarch under siege.

All in all, you get the feeling that Gurira had a change of heart about what her play was about or, equally likely, learned what her play was about as she wrote the ending. If the latter is the case, then some rewriting of the first act is in order – you shouldn’t let the audience think it is visiting the Jeffersons and then shift into the land of the Lomans. For it all to work, the audience has to know the bombs are ticking.

“Familiar” runs through Feb. 21. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Fine Drive

"Driving Miss Daisy" -- MTC Mainstage -- Thru Feb.22

                    Rebecca Hoodwin and Lorenzo Scott. All photos by Joe Landry

There’s a delightful production of Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” currently being offered at MTC Mainstage at its new digs in Norwalk. A gentle, charming character study that teaches lessons without preaching, “Driving Miss Daisy” is tailor-made for MTC’s intimate setting, more so because you can watch, up close, some rather impressive acting.

For those not familiar with the storyline, Miss Daisy is Daisy Werthan (Rebecca Hoodwin), a spry, wealthy septuagenarian who flaunts her humble beginnings and is uncomfortable with change, yet change there must be, especially given her driving habits. Blaming her accidents on balky cars, Miss Daisy bridles when her son, Boolie (Mike Boland) suggests that her driving days are over and that he is going to employ a chauffeur, which Miss Daisy believes is putting on airs. Undaunted, Boolie interviews candidates and hires Hoke (Lorenzo Scott), a black man who has driven for other “fine” families in Atlanta. Initially Miss Daisy is oil to Hoke’s water, but over the span of two-plus decades a bond forms between the two as they weather changes in their own lives and in the society that initially dictated the limits of their relationship.

                                            Mike Boland and Lorenzo Scott

The play, sensitively directed by Kevin Connors, MTC’s executive artistic director, is a series of vignettes that essentially capture the arc of Daisy and Hoke’s relationship, with some sterling moments: Miss Daisy accuses Hoke of stealing a can of salmon, only to be brought up short by the man’s honesty; the two take a car trip to Mobile and, at one point, Hoke must leave Miss Daisy alone in the car – as dogs bark in the dark she calls out his name; there’s an ice storm, the roads are perilous, but somehow Hoke makes his way to Miss Daisy’s house, an arrival that leads to a touching moment; and then there’s the final scene, perhaps one of the best ever written for modern theater, that involves a piece of pumpkin pie, and an acknowledgement of the depth of a relationship that cannot help but speak to the human heart.

                                                     Rebecca Hoodwin

There’s some fine acting going on here. Hoodwin ably captures the spirit of her character and, given the proximity of the audience, uses subtle gestures and facial expressions to a fault. Perhaps most to her credit, she handles “big” emotional scenes with marked restraint, allowing the audience to divine what is actually going on inside her character. It’s a mesmerizing performance.

Boland is solid as the much put-upon son. His soft Southern accent is consistent throughout and he also handles the “emotional” scenes with restraint, and delivers his signature line – “Mama, you’re a doodle” – with a nice blend of love and frustration.

Scott’s role presents the most difficult task, for he must capture the essence of how blacks made their way in a repressive, racist society – smiling and respectful on the outside while understanding the dynamics of the society. One is reminded of the avuncular advice given in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”: “…agree ‘em to death.” As Hoke, Scott’s initial interview scene with Boland has him just a bit too animated – arms and legs in constant motion a la Stepin Fetchit. It’s a bit off-putting, but given that this interview occurs in 1948, it’s an apt portrait. The herky-jerky motions soon disappear as Scott brings out his character’s inherent dignity and bone-bred understanding of what it takes to make your way in a white man’s world.

The heart of this play rests in Miss Daisy and Hoke coming to realize their shared humanity, and this production captures this in no uncertain terms. Worth the price of admission is the look on Miss Daisy’s face as Hoke feeds her a piece of pie – it’s a precious moment that Hoodwin and Scott create with a gentle understanding and a sensitivity that makes the spine tingle.

If there are any problems with the staging of the show, it’s with the choice of entrance points – doors that lead to the foyer and the backstage area. As the doors are opened for the actors, lights spews house left and right, which is a bit distracting but can be solved by use of blackout screens. Other than that, Connors has used MTC’s intimate space quite well, creating an intimacy that the play supports and thrives on. All in all, this is good theater, which means it is both entertaining and emotionally satisfying.

“Driving Miss Daisy” runs through Feb. 22. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to