Playing to the Pew

Playing to the Pew

In Broadway's "Bad Jews," two actors, local boys, find parallels to their Jewish lives

Tracee Chimo, Philip Ettinger, Molly Ranson, and Michael Zegen carry the tensions of “Bad Jews.” Joan Marcus

It must be the zeitgeist.

Just as the Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews was released, to a flurry of responses and defenses and soul-searching posts and stories and interviews – for an example, take a look at the front pages of this newspaper – “Bad Jews,” a play looking at the same set of phenomena, opened at the Roundabout Theater Company’s Laura Pels Theater on West 46th Street. (The play hit the road for a year after playing to capacity crowds in its earlier run. The original cast has returned for this production, which ends on December 15.)

The Pew survey showed that many younger Jews are loath to affiliate with a denomination, join a synagogue, refrain from intermarriage, or call themselves religious, although they are proud to be Jews.

“Bad Jews,” written by Joshua Harmon, shows how some of that plays out in family life; it’s more witty, more specific, often more profane, and therefore more probing than the anodyne prose of the Pew survey, and it is very effective.

It’s also (whew!) good theater.

“Bad Jews” is set in a studio apartment in a prewar building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where two brothers, their first cousin, and a girlfriend have gathered to spend a claustrophobic and loud night. Their grandfather was buried that day, and shivah will begin in the morning, in an apartment down the hall.

One of the brothers – Liam, a smart, articulate, often unpleasant graduate student – has moved far beyond what he sees as the irrational, outmoded demands of old-fashioned Jewish life. The Birthright-intoxicated cousin – a funny, frequently savage, larger-than-life Vassar senior with huge frizzy hair that she tosses and wraps and that seems almost to have its own life – wants to make aliyah and join the IDF as soon as she graduates. Her Jewishness defines her; she prefers being called Daphna, her Hebrew name, rather than her birth name, Diana. The younger, Jonah, brother just wants to be left alone, and the perky blonde girlfriend, when asked about her family’s background, says that they are from Delaware.

It’s the Pew study, come to life.

It is also a family drama, entirely accessible to non-Jewish audiences, but the specifics make it resonate with Jews in a way that, say, a play like “Doubt,” with a compelling plot and vivid characters, appeals to everyone but has a special meaning to the Catholic audiences who went to parochial schools.

Both the actors who play “Bad Jew’s” brothers are Jewish, and both come from Bergen County. Both grew up in kosher homes and their families belong to Conservative shuls. Both retain strong ties to Jewish life, but neither feels compelled to practice Judaism as their parents had.

Michael Zegen, who already has had an impressive career in television and films, including a turn as Bugsy Siegel on “Boardwalk Empire” and an upcoming, ongoing role in the third season of “Girls,” grew up in Glen Rock and then Ridgewood; he went to Hebrew school at the Glen Rock Jewish Center. After he graduated from Ridgewood High School, he went to Skidmore, majored in theater, and has been acting ever since. His grandfather escaped Europe before the Shoah, but most of his family was murdered. He identifies with his character, Liam, although he does not think that he would have made the decisions Liam makes.

It’s complicated playing Liam, he said, because audiences often hate him. Each audience is different, he said, and he can feel their feelings toward Liam – and therefore toward him, because he embodies Liam – as soon as he walks onstage.

“The other night, I could feel the animosity from the audience immediately,” he said. “It usually depends on how the audience perceives Daphna.

“If they like her, if they get her, if they laugh at what she’s saying and really digging her, then they get really protective toward her, and they don’t like me. But if from the get-go they think she’s too intense, then they think I’m the voice of sanity.”

Zegen has read the Pew study. “It’s a little scary,” he said. “We’re a dying breed, and you don’t want to see those traditions vanish. You want to see them passed down from generation to generation, as it has been for thousands of years. It’s scary to see it going the way of the dinosaurs.

“As a Jew, you hope not to give it up. You hope to pass it down. But as for Liam – I think he would feel that giving it up is moving forward.”

Philip Ettinger comes from Fair Lawn, and his family belongs to the Fair Lawn Jewish Center. He went to the acting conservatory at Rutgers, and was able to spend his senior year in London, studying at the Globe Theatre. (The Globe, named after Shakespeare’s theater, is built to Elizabethan specs and employs craftspeople and actors at the top of their art.) “It was awesome,” he said. After graduating in 2008, he moved to New York, and now goes between there and Los Angeles, working mainly in films and television.

As his character hangs back, making himself in a quiet way the focal point in the triangulation, he watches and thinks. “The kind of Jewishness I feel most comfortable with depends on the night and how it’s played,” he said. “I grew up Conservative in a kosher home, and I love the morals and beliefs – but, of course, being in New York, in my 20s…” His voice trailed off.

“It’s like my character,” he said. “Even if he does something like get a tattoo, which is against the Jewish religion, the idea of history means a lot to him.

“I am proud to be Jewish, for sure, but I totally understand what Liam is saying, too. And I also love going to my friends’ house for Shabbat dinner.”

The story of “Bad Jews” revolves around a chai pendant that once belonged to the cousins’ grandfather. Two of the three want it desperately, and each assigns it a different but equally strong symbolic meaning.

That part rings absolutely true for Ettinger, and spooked him a bit, because it was so oddly specific.

“My father has a chai and he wears it every single day,” he said. “It was from his great grandfather, who I’m named for. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen my father take it off. Eventually it will go to my brother, who is the first born.”

At the end of the play, theatergoers are given the opportunity to declare themselves as being on Team Liam or Team Daphna. (There is no Team Jonah, which is the part of the play that is not about Jewishness, but family relationships.)

By the end, the audience – at least the Jewish part of it – is just about ready to take up verbal arms for its team.

(Yay, Team Daphna!)

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