Archive for November, 2014

Stage Review: “Bad Jews” at SpeakEasy Stage

November 2, 2014

By Robert Israel

You are not likely to leave Bad Jews, an uneven, mish-mash of a one-act play, with much clarity regarding just who is a “bad Jew” or who is a “good Jew.” While playwright Joshua Harmon has a keen ear for dialog and is adept at creating a raucous mood of dissonance and discord, he avoids taking sides, thus his fireworks are not all that illuminating. Instead, he steers his play to the middle ground where his two lead characters – representing polar opposites, cultural versus religious Judaism – ultimately exhaust one another, and us, with assaults of unbridled cruelty. At final curtain, we’re spent and none the wiser.

Set in a cramped studio apartment in New York City’s Upper West Side, we meet Jonah (Alex Marz), sprawled on the floor playing a video game, stripped down to his skivvies, white shirt, and black tie. Enter his cousin, Daphna (Alison McCartan), disheveled and loquacious. The subsequent banter – she does most of the talking – sets the plot in motion. The two cousins are gathered together to pay final respects to their beloved grandfather, Poppy, a Holocaust survivor who served as the emotional glue holding their families together. They are twenty-something American Jews, ensconced in their studies at universities but, given the occasion, now invited to face the specter of mortality. Also expected to join the pair, camping out in the apartment like youngsters at a slumber party, are two others: Liam (Victor Shopov) Jonah’s intellectual brother, and his non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody (Gillian Mariner Gordon). Liam and Melody have missed the funeral, but arrive in time for the shiva, or period of mourning.

What follows resembles the goings-on in God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza’s play, where seemingly civilized adults start off polite and then go at it until they are left scarred and shattered. In Bad Jews, however, Judaism is the unruly beast in the jungle of civilization. Faith is represented via a golden trinket, a “chai” (Hebrew for “life”) left behind after Poppy’s death. Liam has claimed it and it is in his possession. Daphna wants it. Each has their reasons for valuing the token. The back story: Poppy hid the “chai” under his tongue while in captivity in the Nazi camp. He presented it to his bride, the cousins’ grandmother, instead of a ring, during his marriage ceremony. Liam wants to do the same thing with Melody. Daphna will have none of it.
Victor Shopov (Liam Haber) in

Victor Shopov (Liam Haber) in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Bad Jews.” Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

The cast, like the play itself, is uneven. As Jonah, Marz plays his character as if he had been left traumatized after being swallowed by the Biblical whale. Even when given the chance to speak, Marz is ineffectual. There is no familiar chemistry between Jonah and Daphna, little eye contact. In the only scene where Jonah shows affection for his brother Liam, you are left wondering if they are related at all. During most of his scenes, Marz sits off to stage left, as wooden as a bookcase. As Daphna, Alison McCartan tries but fails to convey a strong impression of an impassioned Jewish identity. She is supposed to be a “baal tesuvah” Jew – Hebrew for “born again” — who is moving to Israel after graduation from Vassar later that spring. Then she will hook up with an Israeli man she intends to marry. But we aren’t convinced. Like much in this play, it’s all a set up for polemics.

The bravura performance in Bad Jews is supplied by Victor Shopov as Liam. He commands the stage and makes the most of a memorably riveting meltdown. He is a furnace ready to explode: his face reddening from the lobes of his ears to the top of his head. Shopov is matched by Gillian Mariner Gordon, who supplies a few cool breezes while the lava spews out of the domestic/religious volcano.

What Bad Jews lacks is a sense of Judaism that is summed up in the word, “Yiddishkeit,” which translates as “Jewish way of life.” Jews have been debating for centuries – and the play references this squabbling – about which path to take toward righteousness. This is far from a new argument. But why it remains compelling is that men and women, young and old, who engage in this discourse feel something about their faith, and need to find new ways to articulate that emotional dedication amid changing times and cultures. Bad Jews pumps out lots and lots of hot air about the quandaries of modern Judaism, and some it is explosive. But most of it is vapid, an academic exercise rather than a cri de coeur.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).


Galway Kinnell, 1927-2014: An Appreciation

November 1, 2014

By Robert Israel

Some years back I met Galway Kinnell as he strode across the field in Glover, Vermont, just down the road from his home in nearby Sheffield. He surveyed the crowd of revelers at Bread and Puppet Theatre’s Domestic Resurrection Circus with a broad smile. We chatted about our mutual roots growing up in Rhode Island, American poetry, and Walt Whitman in particular, all the while enjoying the bizarre goings-on in the field below us as young men and women — wearing paper mâché masks, burlap sacks and flowing ribbons — frolicked freely about a maypole.

Kinnell, who died October 28 at his home in Vermont at the age 87, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1983 and an American Book Award for his work. Born in Pawtucket, he decided early on to venture beyond the language of his region; he needed to turn to the work of Edgar Allan Poe and others to find an inspiration for his poetic sensibility.

“The accent of my hometown is rather unpoetical,” Kinnell once wrote. “It’s a very charming and loveable accent, but not very musical. To discover [in Poe] that this language could sing like that – ‘It was many and many a year ago in a kingdom by the sea…’ thrilled me.”

But it was the work of Walt Whitman – who broke from the confines of rhyme to write free verse – that influenced him the most. In this admiration he stands with other contemporary American poets, including Philip Levine, Donald Hall, Gerald Stern, Gary Snyder, and W.S. Merwin (who was his classmate at Princeton). He used a line from Whitman to title his eleventh collection of his poems, 2006′s Strong Is Your Hold (Houghton Mifflin). Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and other poems gave him the courage to draw from his experiences, to express his voice freely in long, flowing lines, and to describe what he saw and felt on a broad canvas.

“One thing that leads a person to poetry is an inner life of some activity and maybe even turbulence, the weight of meaning and feeling that has to get out,” Kinnell wrote. “There’s not a specific something that I’m aiming for, but there is something that’s almost unspeakable and poems are efforts to speak it bit by bit, like a burden that has to be laid down piece by piece, that can’t be just thrown off.”

ed3d2704ca8a2dc845ffdaf134b44968Kinnell’s masterwork, The Book of Nightmares, appeared in 1971. It is a dark, book-length poem broken into chapters that takes the reader through the circles of Hell. Written in the first person, Whitmanesque in its corralling of details, the piece’s lyricism is not only harsh, but full of tenderness as well, especially toward the poet’s children, Maud and Fergus, to whom the volume is dedicated. Here are some choice lines:

I would blow the flame out of your silver cup,
I would suck the rot from your fingernail,
I would brush your sprouting hair of the dying light,
I would scrape the rust off your ivory bones,
I would help death escape through the little ribs of your body,
I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood,
I would let nothing of you go, ever,

until washerwomen
feel the clothes fall asleep in their hands,
and hens scratch their spell across hatchet blades,
and rats walk away from the cultures of the plague,
and iron twists weapons toward the true north,
and grease refuses to slide in the machinery of progress,
and men feel as free on earth as fleas on the bodies of men,
and lovers no longer whisper to the presence beside them in the
dark, O corpse-to-be

– “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight”

Kinnell, who taught for many years at New York University, also wrote a long requiem for those who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 which was published in The New Yorker (and collected in Strong Is Your Hold). (He was politically active throughout his life, protesting the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and a fervent environmentalist.) He served as the Poet Laureate of Vermont and penned a number of lyrics, which often took the form of pastoral ramblings, that celebrated his appreciation of the rural life.

Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Kinnell can be found in The Book of Nightmares. In “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight” he admonishes his daughter Maud to avoid sentiment and to experience life fully, to

learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come – to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones. Kiss
the mouth
which tells you, here,
here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.

The still undanced cadence of vanishing.


A previous version of this piece appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).