Now That You Mensch-ion It: All these arguments are safe for shul.
Now That You Mensch-ion It: All these arguments are safe for shul. Credit: Teddy Wolff

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This month, three generations of Jewish identity are unfolding across D.C.’s theater scene. To please the bubbies and zadies, Arena Stage has a 50th-anniversary production of that shtetl chestnut Fiddler on the Roof. Meanwhile, Theater J is staging The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… by Tony Kushner, a leading Jewish Boomer voice who’s been labeled with the Bad Jew moniker for decades, in part because of his criticism of Israel. (This comes one year after Theater J faced fierce opposition from one determined contingent of Jews for its fantastic production of The Admission, a cross-generational dispute over Israeli military policies.)

Now, Studio Theatre’s chiming in with the new Hebrew-school class. Joshua Harmon’s blistering 2013 comedy Bad Jews, about two twenty-something Chosen People who brawl over a family heirloom, has already become one of the top three most-produced plays in America this year. Harmon’s work, blunt and precise in equal measure, gleefully poses big and small questions about Jewish identity: The Holocaust’s legacy, tattoos, and intermarriage all come in for undressing.

Let’s pray that the future of Judaism rests on more than these two diametrically opposed figures. There’s Daphna, a pious moralizer who exudes self-righteousness, loudly announces her dietary restrictions, and plans to move to Israel where, she claims, she has a boyfriend in the army. Then there’s her cousin Liam, every JCC’s worst nightmare: an atheist who dates a blonde shiksa and studies Japanese culture even as he rejects his own ancestors’ heritage. The two butt heads in the apartment of Liam’s quiet brother, Jonah (Joe Paulik), following their Holocaust survivor grandfather’s funeral. It’s a perfect tempest for an emotional firestorm, as Daphna and Liam attempt to lay claim to “Poppy’s” chai-symbol necklace. Director Serge Seiden keeps the action close, the characters rotating around Jonah’s bed, sniffing for weaknesses.

In the showiest role, Irene Sofia Lucio is a thrill to watch as Daphna. Of the play’s many fiery monologues, the most heated come out of her mouth. Daphna craves not only her own absolution, but also validation that Liam’s missing the funeral is just the latest in a string of wrongs he’s perpetuated against his people. “I don’t understand why he has to take so much pride in how disdainful he is,” she spits, recalling how Liam once offered her shortbread during Passover. Lucio lets us feel Daphna’s moral superiority in every passive-aggressive accusation; her smart portrayal of this self-guided martyr is a distinct product of 21st-century American Jewry, but not a stereotype of it.

Alex Mandell makes a worthy foil as Liam, though his take on the character’s spiritual apathy gets lost in venomous barbs. (“Don’t Holocaust me,” he snaps when Daphna tries to use concentration-camp guilt.) Both parties yearn for validation by their elders and a coveted victimhood status—they may not be such different Jews after all. It falls to Maggie Erwin, as Liam’s girlfriend, to diffuse the tension with a rendition of “Summertime” that’s better left a surprise.

Harmon’s observations hit dead-on for this twenty-something Jew, though I wished Daphna and Liam had dug deeper into generationally divisive topics like exceptionalism, thinning congregations, and Israel. The play probes but remains shul-appropriate; no one who picketed The Admission, which also ran on Studio Theatre’s Mead stage after its JCC run, would bristle here. There were moments in Daphna’s speeches when the Studio audience, primarily aging Jews, clapped while the work wanted them to squirm. Something this raw shouldn’t go over like Fiddler.

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