Millennials in tight spaces10/7/2015
Tim Wisgerhof liked the lamp. The prop arrived just before a late rehearsal of “Bad Jews,” and Wisgerhof, as set designer, had to approve. Just seeing the man’s smile, you knew the lamp would work; its heavy shade like a weight hanging over some actor’s head. The set, a Manhattan studio skewed across one corner of the Kum & Go, will emphasize the squeeze and the sharp corners afflicting the four young protagonists.
“Bad Jews” might be called a comedy. The title alone can seem like a joke, and the play opens with some delicious snark. The zinger seems richly deserved, too, since the target looks like a frat boy with a hangover, lounging around in boxers and socks. Nonetheless, he and the other young people have come together following a tragedy, the death of old “Poppy,” a Holocaust survivor who was a grandparent to three of the characters. His passing sets a challenge.
Three characters are Jewish, but more than that, they are American college kids. Then should they sit shiva for the dead? And which of them deserves the heirloom necklace? This “chai” is traditionally male, and therefore cousin Liam’s, but he’d only hand it to his girlfriend (the fourth player). Shouldn’t the piece go instead to cousin Diane, observant enough to prefer the Hebrew name Daphna? Who, finally, counts as a “good Jew?”
Small wonder the set is askew. What’s more, the audience will enter down a narrow corridor, as if in an apartment building. Director Todd Buchacker likewise intends to emphasize the “fast pace” and the “tensions” of the one-act.
“The playwright, Josh Harmon, is young himself. He’s capturing the ironies of the moment — the edginess,” said Buchacker.
Kelly Marie Schaeffer, who handled the costumes, adds that she found what she needed by looking at her Iowa State University students. So, too, the actors — who Buchacker praises as “the most professional group I’ve ever worked with” —had no trouble connecting with the play’s conflicts.
Rachel Salowitz, often seen locally, plays Daphna, and she calls herself “the cast’s only card-carrying Jew.” Still, she says, “the problem of faith in contemporary life is a quintessential 20-something struggle.”
“I’m not particularly religious, but I don’t feel out of my element at all,” adds Ian Shields.
Like the others, he identifies with the family squabble, exacerbated by a girlfriend from outside the tribe. This interloper is Angela Stettler — who was terrific in “Cock,” — who quickly understood the character’s “anxiety.”
Brian Vaughn, a recent arrival from New York, handles Liam, and he points out that the characters “use the same language we do. They speak for our generation — the Millennials.”
Neither kids nor full-grown, they wield humor as both a weapon and a shield.
“The dialogue is just brutally hilarious,” says Vaughn.
Overheard In the Lobby: Ken-Matt Martin and others have founded Pyramid Theater Company, intended to bring greater diversity to Des Moines stages. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.