In specificity, there is universality — at least, that's what playwright Josh Harmon believes. And judging from his comedy Bad Jews, which is currently the third-most-produced play in the country (according to the Theatre Communications Group), he's onto something. Set in an Upper West Side studio apartment on the night of a Jewish family patriarch's funeral, Bad Jews is a witty, acerbic, and often intense play about heritage, loss, and how we interpret family history.
That's the universal stuff. The specifics are — as they always are — much more interesting. Three cousins, Daphna, Jonah, and Liam, are mourning the death of their grandfather, who survived the Holocaust and was deeply important to his grandchildren. When the play opens, Daphna has spent the last three weeks in New York to be with her grandfather, Poppy, as he was dying. She and Jonah are in Jonah's apartment together. Shortly after, Liam arrives from Aspen with his girlfriend, Melody, having missed the funeral because he dropped his iPhone from the ski lift and didn't know Poppy had died. Liam and Daphna dislike each other and to make matters worse, each of them badly wants Poppy's chai — a necklace with a pendant of the Hebrew word for life. As the two go to battle over that and numerous other resentments, grievances, and general disagreements about how one should live one's life, they tear into serious questions about how to remember their grandfather, with Jonah and Melody winding up as collateral damage.
Jewishness, and to some extent, Manhattan Jewishness, is a bedrock feature of all of these characters — well, except for Melody, who's a shiksa — but that hasn't stopped Bad Jews from being snapped up by theaters from London to Canada to Australia, in addition to theaters all across the U.S. There's nothing inaccessible about Harmon's characters, or about the ugly fight that grows and grows during the course of the play. "I firmly believe that by being incredibly specific, you can tap into something universal," Harmon says. "If I'd written a play about any generic family it weirdly would have been like nobody's family. But if you think about a very specific group of Jewish cousins on the Upper West Side living today, you have a better shot at tapping into something that's true for a much broader cross-section of people."
He's seen that firsthand at performances of his play. "I've had Christian people come up to me and tell me about the fights they'd had over a grandfather's cross, and a Greek American told me that his grandfather had worn a Greek symbol that his family had a big fight over. So it crosses all cultural lines." And despite what some see as a provocative title, the play hasn't faced any serious opposition from the Jewish community. "It's been sort of generational," Harmon says. "It's such a familiar phrase to people in my generation, so I haven't had any issues with people under, say, 40. There are some older people who have taken offense to it, and I understand that, but the title is put in context in the play." Daphna's the one who uses the term, while telling a story about Liam — he calls himself a "bad Jew" in a sharp, joking way after he knowingly eats something that's not kosher on Passover.
The play's Charleston premiere is being directed by Dana Friedman Resnick, an assistant professor of acting and directing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Resnick grew up in Charleston and worked with PURE intermittently when she was back in the city six or seven years ago. Since she has summers off, Resnick got in touch with PURE's Sharon Graci to see if she could direct a PURE Summer Slam production, which the company does each July. Resnick is friends with Harmon and knew Bad Jews, so she suggested it to Graci. "It spoke to me as an awesome play written by a friend, but also, I'm Jewish," Resnick says. "I really connected with these characters."
Resnick brought one cast member, Cameron Tagge (Liam), with her from Los Angeles — he's a former student of Resnick's at Loyola, and is also from Charleston. Graci put together the rest of the cast from local actors: College of Charleston theater graduate Ashley Gennarelli plays Daphna; Miles Boinest, PURE's stage manager, plays Jonah; and Sullivan Hamilton, Graci's daughter and a veteran PURE performer, plays Melody. Gennarelli was an especially important find, as Daphna is described in Harmon's character notes as "two-thirds body, one-third hair. Thick, intense, curly, frizzy, long brown hair ... Hair that screams: Jew."
It's a young cast — the characters are all 25 or younger — but Resnick says they've had no problem stepping up to PURE's high professional standards. "I keep telling them when they talk about their parents, or the trip to Israel, or that dinner at Benihana's that went awry, they need to be able to picture those memories in their heads, and they need to have the same ones," Resnick says. "And they're doing it. They're committing to that type of intensity."
That intensity of feeling — of anger and sadness, as well as the joy of a shared memory — is something you can really only get in small, intimate stories like this one. And what makes those feelings compelling is that there's more beneath the surface. "Their anger doesn't come from a place of anger," Harmon says, speaking about Liam and Daphna. "It comes from a place of love, and disappointment, and frustration at how to carry on their grandfather's legacy, and sorrow at what the family has become. It's not driven by hate, and that makes it much more painful."