By Janelle Faignant
The title might be misleading.
“I’d love to dispel any preconceptions about [it],” director Joanne Greenberg said.
“Bad Jews” could imply a play intended just for Jews. Or, possibly, insulting them.
But the story by Jewish playwright Josh Harmon about family and identity is a universal one.
Greenberg is at the helm of her fourth play for Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre. The seriously smart satire “Bad Jews” opens Rutland community theater’s 11th season beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, in the Brick Box at the Paramount Theatre.
“I picked it having seen it when it opened in New York,” Greenberg said. “And I loved it right away. I kept it in mind from the moment I saw it, and then it became the right one to do this year.”
The story follows two brothers, their female cousin, and one brother’s non-Jewish girlfriend. All college-age, they’re reunited at the funeral of the grandfather, the patriarch and a Holocaust survivor. An argument over a family heirloom breaks out and collateral damage ensues.
“Funerals can trigger that sort of questioning of family values,” Greenberg said. “Questions about how to respect and cherish what [the grandfather] represented have led the family members in opposite directions.”
“It uses the recent death of a relative to stick family members who have never much liked each other inside a pressurized cauldron,” The Chicago Tribune said.
And on a deeper level there are some entrenched divisions about cultural identity.
“About what to embrace and what to dismiss about their heritage,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg says the four non-Jewish cast members took an opportunity to explore Jewish culture at a dinner with the Rutland Jewish Center, which is sponsoring the play. Conversations about beliefs, customs and culture helped the cast to shape their characters and to learn more about what lies behind the title of the play.
“But the actors have really looked into the bigger universal questions about the issues of being 20-something and making choices,” Greenberg said. “And learning what you believe in through arguing.”
Greenberg was drawn by “the relevance of the need in this day and age to navigate a world of choices about self-identification, which no longer solely comes from heredity.”
“Nowadays, everything from religious background to gender identity to political leaning is fluid and open to personal choice,” she said. “And that’s exciting, but it also can be overwhelming and decisive.”
The show opens after a two-month rehearsal period, which Greenberg said has also been full of laughter.
“There’s a lot of humor in the play,” she said. “But there’s also been a lot of serious and intense work on those very charged moments. It’s been really satisfying as a rehearsal process.”
She hopes audiences will see the universality in the themes of the play — questions about identity, assimilation and embracing culture, which are “all very American, very human, and not easily answered.”
The Tribune called it a “smashingly venomous and cheerfully fearless comedy … packing the house with Jews (good, bad and indifferent), gentiles and anyone who enjoys watching privileged and over-educated people fight like Upper West Siders whose brunch reservations have not been honored in a timely fashion.”
“Bad Jews” is full of outrageous behavior, insults and laughs — a night that could be easily translatable to any family situation.