By Jackson Riley
I've been a fan of Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews since I first read the script. It's reminiscent of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in many ways, and there's something about late night chaos that I really respond to. The play is especially successful due to the incredible foundation that Harmon has given the characters - it is wildly frustrating (and fun) to see the events come to an explosive finale when you can totally see both sides of the story.
Needless to say I was beyond thrilled to see that Theatre Wit - one of the most consistently great theatres in the city - was presenting the Chicago premiere of the play, which tells the story of three young family members: Jonah (Cory Kahane), his difficult and opinionated brother Liam (Ian Paul Custer) and their outspoken cousin Daphna (Laura Lapidus). Tensions are high when Liam brings his especially non-Jewish girlfriend home, played by Erica Bittner.
The gorgeous set in Wit's space fits the show perfectly, and the staging assisted in the rapid-fire pace of the production. However, like Virginia Woolf, Jews relies on having brilliant performances, which is unfortunately not the case here. Lapidus does her best and often comes close to great, however, her performance is shaky and (sometimes) amateurish. Many of her longer lines start to lose both accent and energy, and she panders aimlessly, not unlike Jeremy Wechsler (Wit's Artistic Executive Director) in his horribly long, uncomfortable preshow speech. Someone needs to tell Artistic Directors (and anyone making preshow announcements, actually) to shut their mouths. Prefacing an 85-minute play with an 85-minute curtain speech adds no good to the audience's experience at your theatre. Now back to the production...
Kahane, a fresh face to Chicago theatre, attempts to make far too much from his little material. Kahane has the smallest part in the play by far, but he overcompensated in his delivery, desperately pushing for laughs when, by all means, his character is the straight one. Some of this could be forgiven due to the awkward nature of the character. Bad Jews is written so that the monologues are not just energetic, but thrilling. Custer, instead, got lost in these moments. Over-the-top acting is one thing, but his performance went so far beyond believable that much of the magic of the play was lost.
Theatre Wit's production of Bad Jews is a good one. However, it is not up to the level of the theatre's history nor the text, and therefore, it's hard not to think of this production as a big 'ol disappointment. If you're able to appreciate the brilliant text under lackluster performances, by all means - go. Otherwise, wait for another company to get their hands on the performance rights and present a better Bad Jews. One thing is for sure: Theatre Wit didn't set that bar very high.
Bad Jews plays at Theatre Wit through June 7. More information here: https://theaterwit.org/