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Conversation with Oliver Butler

“Bad Jews” takes family drama to a (darkly) comedic level, says director of the play now at the Long Wharf

By Cindy Mindell

NEW HAVEN – Three 20-something cousins, one family heirloom, one claustrophobic studio apartment. This is the setting of “Bad Jews,” a modern-day play about identity and legacy that just began its month-long run at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

If the title is a bit cringe-worthy, that will serve as an introduction to the uncomfortable questions and observations that shoot back and forth between the characters like poison darts. And yet, the play was dubbed by the New York Times as “the best comedy of the season” when it debuted at the Roundabout Theatre Company in 2013.

The title came to playwright Joshua Harmon on the heels of an awkward Yom Hashoah service during his sophomore year of college, where a group of students spoke about their grandparents’ experiences surviving the Holocaust. Harmon calls it “a depressingly unmoving service…it was strange and sterile and laden with clichés but lacking in genuine feeling. It scared me. Without the eyewitness connection to the events, the power of the story was lost.” Shortly thereafter, the title “Bad Jews” came into his head.

Harmon acknowledges that the play’s title makes some people uncomfortable – among them his own grandmother, who asked whether he could change the title to “Good Jews.” But Harmon claims he didn’t invent the term.

“That phrase is Jews speaking about themselves when they are about to do something in direct opposition to Jewish law,” Harmon, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in Westchester, N.Y. recently told the New Haven Register. “Just before you bite into a BLT, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m such a bad Jew.’ So, to me, it’s not something that’s hurled to you by somebody outside the faith. What’s interesting to me is that there are a fair number of Jews whose only means of expressing their Judaism is by breaking Jewish law and tradition. That’s the only way they practice it.”

It would take Harmon eight years to circle back to the story of the play, a savage comedy about identity, family, and legacy. The night after the funeral of their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, three cousins battle it out over an heirloom — a necklace of a chai that saw their Poppy through a concentration camp and into his new life in the U.S.

The Long Wharf production of “Bad Jews”, part of the theater’s 50th-anniversary year, is directed by Oliver Butler. A co-founder and co-artistic director of The Debate Society, a Brooklyn-based ensemble theater company, Butler has co-created and directed eight full-length plays there since 2004, many of them award-winning. He most recently directed The Debate Society’s “Jacuzzi”, which premiered this fall at Ars Nova in New York, where he is an artist-in-residence. He also directed the recent premiere of Will Eno’s award-winning “The Open House” at the Signature Theatre Company in New York. Butler is a Sundance Institute Fellow and a Bill Foeller Fellow of the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival.

He spoke with the Ledger about the allure of this darkly humorous play.

Q: What draws you, as a director, to “Bad Jews?”

A: The play is incredibly rich; it is an extremely tight, realistic piece that mines the absolute depth and height of family drama. At the time I am in my life now, at age 36, I’ve seen my parents get older much quicker in the last couple of years. You hit a time in your life when the older people in your family get older faster and you become more acutely aware of your time and legacy. I have been drawn to plays that have to do with family legacy and the ephemera and things that get accumulated over a life. As I take a look at and take more responsibility for my own parents’ lives and things, I realize and become aware of the things people accumulate and what has meaning.

At the very heart of the play, and what makes it so beautifully simple and therefore infinitely complex, are two brothers and a cousin who are fighting over what to do with this one important family cultural-religious piece in their family: their grandfather’s chai necklace, on the evening after his funeral, the medallion, of incredible family significance, that he carried with him through the Holocaust.

Daniel Aukin and Joshua Elias Harmon attending the opening night

“Bad Jews” playwright Josh Harmon

[Playwright] Josh Harmon has funneled all the drama and importance that we as humans take from the legacy of our family through an artifact like this. As you watch these young people fight over who will own it, the value of the object is quantifiable, as far as what it’s worth in money. So what they’re really fighting for, the real value in it, is what they have each imagined it represents for the family. They’re trying to allow themselves to be the holder of the legacy of the family, which is much more valuable than the gold the chai is made from.

Over the last couple of years, something has very tangibly changed for me personally: I feel a distinct connection to my 20s and now have one hand in that period of my life, through my younger brothers, and one hand in my 60s and 70s, through my parents.

When I think about these characters and remember what it was like in my 20s, before you become what you will become, you have these dreams about what you think you want to be. So you might mistake an artifact or physical object for real meaning and existence. I see this youthful outlook in the characters: if I get the thing, my life has meaning and I am connected to the legacy of the family.

In the play, one of the characters ultimately finds their own way to connect to the family legacy in a personal way that transcends the artifact and the totem, and which transcends the spirit. This character decides to not focus on the thing, but instead to focus on the story connected with the thing, which is transient and can be used by anyone willing to take responsible care of the story.

Q: Many reviewers describe “Bad Jews” as a comedy. But it’s also driven by anger and conflict. Do you see it as a comedy?

A: On a very base level, the play is funny in a very dark way. I like watching people being terrible to each other, I like seeing the discomfort when smart people do stupid things. I spent most of my life obsessed with things that sometimes a year or day or moment later had no importance. The comedy is about getting these moments of perspective, seeing the characters getting worked up over things that don’t have the meaning they thought they did.

We spent four weeks in rehearsal doing a play where there’s a lot of funny stuff that happens. But I needed the audience very badly because there are things that are very funny but we were asking ourselves what kind of comedy it is: it isn’t a comedy in the sense that it doesn’t end funny and a lot of things the characters say is truthful and honest and very dark. I feel like it’s one of these comedies where you laugh because you’re horrified and uncomfortable. But I won’t know what kind of comedy it is without the audience.

bad jews christy escobar

“Bad Jews” cast member Christy Escobar

The cast is incredible; they’re very smart and thoughtful. I think we’ve created a very honest piece that leaves open opportunities for grand buffoonery and silliness that comes with people getting very worked up.

It’s probably okay with me having people show up thinking it’s going to be hilarious and then realize that it’s scorchingly uncomfortable. That’s OK; people who show up thinking they’re going to see something silly – this is no “Old Jews Telling Jokes”, or, when I tell people I’m doing “Bad Jews”, they immediately think of “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish” & “I’m in Therapy!” Anyone who shows up ready to guffaw in that way, I think they’ll have their eyebrows singed off.

Q: You don’t come from a Jewish background. What did you draw on to interpret the Jewish aspects of the play?

A: Not everything I direct – and this is the rule for directing – is necessarily directly related to my personal experience. Just like an actor playing a character that isn’t exactly who they are, for me, directing a piece where that aspect isn’t a part of my heritage is the same process I go through with every play.

I grew up in the Northeast, partially in New Canaan, and I have spent a good amount of time with very close Jewish friends and family of different levels of faith. But I’m definitely an outsider when it comes to that.

The work of the artist is making sure you put yourself deeply into the world of the play and into the characters of the play. So that’s what I do, by doing a lot of research and talking with a lot of people. It’s a process of reading, researching, getting your entire team to embed themselves into that world so you can be as sensitive and knowledgeable about how the choices you make enrich the story they’re going to tell. Whatever a play is about, if it speaks to you, that’s what you focus on.

That said, part of what you do is look for yourself in the play. The things that struck me in “Bad Jews” – class, family, religion, legacy – those are the things that are universal but are being expressed by characters who have a very particular experience and world. So these themes are being filtered and communicated through their perspective.

The characters’ Jewish history and rich family legacy is very specific but the human element is universal – the want, as a young person, to be connected to it and for your life to have meaning.

As the director, I’m the guy who sits there, asks the questions and doesn’t necessarily know the answers, but is interested and wants to stay in the room and find out how it turns out. The point isn’t for us to know the answers but to be engaged by the questions and that is what a director does: I’m supposed to be the person most excited by the questions and the one who works to keep others excited by the questions.

And of course, I’ve always had Gordon Edelstein, the artistic director of the theater, who continues to make himself available any time I reach my limit of what I can understand. For example, there was a prop that I thought would add a level of ancient Jewish feel to the set, as a way to try to connect the ancient and modern worlds in the play. Gordon said he didn’t think that artifact would be used by that particular family and might be a touch heavy-handed. So we didn’t use it, in order to stay in the realm of the plausible and the exciting.

One of our actors comes from a Conservative Jewish family and his grandmother died in the first week of rehearsal. That was an extremely sad experience and the actor himself was going through a similar funeral as the one at the heart of the play. We all comforted him through it and were able to understand what the process was like firsthand, from his experience.

Q: “Bad Jews” deals with identity issues, mostly religious, but also class-related. How did you relate to the class aspect of the story?

A: Class is extremely important in the play; I think it’s extremely important in my life and how I perceive myself in my life. I’m the son of artists – my mother was an actor – and I grew up in the theater, an incredibly underfunded world, and in a somewhat struggling family. I also grew up as a scholarship kid going to very affluent schools, wearing hand-me-downs. We always had food on the table, and I knew that there were others who much worse off than we were. But I always felt this drastic difference between me and the people around me and I saw how class affects what’s available to people. So I’ve been sensitive to and interested in this issue.

In the play, Daphna is the cousin of Liam and Jonah, two brothers from a much richer side of the family, and the play is set in the second apartment in the building where Liam and Jonah’s parents live, purchased for the boys to use when they’re visiting New York.

When they talk about who gets the chai and you consider why Daphna fights so hard for it, you have two very different sets of values relating to the worth of the material object. These two different sets of values are baked in from a very young age. There’s not a right or wrong. I think I side with the less-monied values a little bit, or with the values you get with having to work extremely hard.

Q: What do you hope the audience will come away with?

A: At the end of the play, a decision is made and something happens that forces one person to have the thing and one person to not have the thing, and there’s an even more complicated final ending. Ideally, you do not want people to walk away with one clear avenue of right and wrong. What you really want is people, as much as possible, to side 50-50 with the different arguments. You want people engaging in the argument and then to leave and be able to infinitely debate who should and should not carry the legacy of a family. It should be as hard a discussion for audience-members as it is for the characters in the play. You don’t want people walking away thinking there is one easy answer, but you should be able to interest them in questioning the conclusion.

I also hope that people are worn out after the play. Like one of the solutions that keep getting floated in the play, “Let’s just go to bed,” I want people to be ready to have the conversation about what should happen in the play – but probably tomorrow. Now, let’s just go to bed.

“Bad Jews” by Joshua Harmon is at the Long Wharf through March 22. For more information: www.longwharf.org, (203) 787-4282.

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