AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Joshua Harmon
Directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell
Presented by and at Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco / (415) 441-8822

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Playwright Joshua Harmon is a 31-year-old who shows great promise, as evidenced by "Bad Jews."

Presented in its Bay Area premiere to open Magic Theatre's 48th season, the play looks at what it means to be a Jew as seen mainly through the eyes of two antagonistic cousins, both in their 20s, as are the play's other two characters.

It takes place in a New York City studio apartment the evening of the family patriarch's funeral. Jonah (Kenny Toll), a college student who co-owns the apartment, and his cousin, Daphna (Rebecca Benhayon), a senior at Vassar, are staying there for the funeral and shiva. They're awaiting the other owner, Jonah's brother, Liam (Max Rosenak), a University of Chicago graduate student who missed the funeral because he lost his phone while skiing at Aspen.

They're surprised when Liam arrives with his gentile girlfriend, Melody (Riley Krull), whom he intends to marry, they learn.

Daphna and Liam have long been at odds, mainly because she's so insistent on observing Jewish traditions, while he isn't. Their conflict comes to a head over their grandfather's Chai, a symbol that means "life" in Hebrew and that is sacred to Jews. Daphna wants the Chai because she believes she's the most observant Jew of the three grandchildren.

Liam wants it to give to Melody instead of an engagement ring, just as their grandfather gave it to their grandmother when they became engaged after World War II. As revealed by Daphna, the Chai also symbolizes their grandfather's survival of the Holocaust.

During the 90-minute, intermissionless play, both Dapha and Liam have long, vitriolic speeches expressing their disdain for each other. Unwillingly stuck in the middle, Jonah just wants to stay out of the argument, and Melody pleads for them to treat each other as human beings.

Director Ryan Guzzo Purcell paces the action well, but some of his blocking poses sight-line difficulty for people seated on the right and left sides of the stage. (The set is by Erik Flatmo with lighting by Ray Oppenheimer, costumes by Antonia Gunnarson and sound by Sara Huddleston)

However, he has chosen his actors with care. Benhayon as Daphna and Rosenak as Liam both handle their long speeches capably, while Toll as Jonah shows his character to be a man who cares more than he initially reveals. Krull embodies Melody's sweetness and lack of artifice.

"The play begs the distinction between religion and tribe," Magic's producing artistic director Loretta Greco writes in the program. It's a fascinating look at how young people today are deciding if and how they will preserve their family's legacy and traditions.

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