Misbehavior trumps feeling in Cygnet’s “Bad Jews”
Cygnet Theatre’s Bad Jews is either a no-holds-barred comedy in which resides important discourse about family culture and tradition, or it’s 90 minutes of exhaustive tantrumming by two equally obnoxious adversaries. Joshua Harmon’s 2012 play is probably both, to tell the truth. In it, young Jewish cousins Daphna (Danielle Frimer) and Liam (Josh Odsess-Rubin) wage verbal war over possession of a chai amulet that belonged to their barely dead grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. A small New York apartment is their battlefield, with entitled Liam’s non-confrontational brother Jonah (Tom Zohar) and his shiksa girlfriend Melody (Katie Sapper) in the crossfire.
Daphna and Liam are so unrepentantly vicious and nasty that it’s impossible to root for either one. A fair mount of the audience laughter must be of the shocked or guilty variety. Odsess-Rubin manages to be funny even amid his childish diatribes; Frimer’s self-righteous Daphna, meanwhile, is a tornado of temerity. Bad Jews’ principals are so obstreperous and their salvos so cruel that whatever pathos the play strives to achieve at the end feels tacked on.
Among the many questions raised by Les Liaisons Dangereuses, set in the late 1780s in an opulent France, is how can people wearing so many clothes be so sexy? The answer lies in the delicious deceits and libidinous machinations of playwright Christopher Hampton’s exquisitely written confederates in games of love and revenge, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. New Fortune Theatre Co.’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is being staged in the San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Space under the co-direction of New Fortune artistic director Richard Baird and Kaitlin O’Neal. Theirs is a bold realization of Hampton’s 1985 play, from its rich 18th-century costumes by Howard Schmitt, its sensual lighting and artfully choreographed scene changes to the irresistible performances by Baird as the cocksure Valmont and Jessica John Gercke as scheming Merteuil.
Nearly overshadowed by Baird’s charismatic presence is the depth of Hampton’s language, rife with introspection on love, sex and betrayal. As Valmont seeks to conquer not only the elusive Madame de Tourvel (Amanda Schaar) but also the virginal Cecile de Volanges (Gentry Roth), his mask of cunning is stripped away. Meanwhile, his partner in crime, Merteuil, is in for a shock to the ego and the heart. This New Fortune production is yes, very sexy, but also a penetrating discourse on the games people play.
Why has Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady been staged locally three times in the last two and a half years? It’s not merely “a little bit of luck,” as one of the classic musical’s memorable songs goes. Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista (summer of 2014), Cygnet Theatre in Old Town (spring of 2015) and now Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido have all staged My Fair Lady because it’s as close to perfect as a Broadway show can be, over 60 years after it debuted with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews on the Great White Way. Beside its indelible tunes (among them “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “On the Street Where You Live”), it delivers witty dialogue, romantic shadings, and two timeless characters in Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.
The Welk’s production capitalizes on all of these built-in assets, even if its stage and its four-piece “orchestra” only adequately accommodate the sweep of this show. Lance Arthur Smith is a more likable than usual Higgins, which is fine, and Shaina Knox, though her Cockney accent wavers at the outset, beautifully renders Eliza’s signature numbers. The formidable Randall Hickman tends to shout-sing his Alfie Doolittle showstoppers (“With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”), but like My Fair Lady in general, he can’t really go wrong.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.