With a title like Bad Jews, one expects a Borscht Belt-style routine, perhaps from the mind of Jackie Mason, or a comedy involving cross-cultural shenanigans.
But instead it is a critically acclaimed play by Joshua Harmon that has become one of the most-produced plays in the country.
The play has its area premiere opening Stage West’s 37th season. It previews Thursday and Friday and opens Saturday for a monthlong run.
Everything in the play I’ve heard talked about over a dinner table in the last year.
Richard J. Allen
“It’s a vicious, angry comedy, but it’s also very beautiful and meaningful about how young people look at religion in America,” says Richard J. Allen, who is making his full-production directing debut at Stage West.
“Everything in the play I’ve heard talked about over a dinner table in the last year,” he says.
New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company premiered the play in 2013 at the Laura Pels Theatre, and it earned several critics’ and off-Broadway nods for best play. It went on to successful runs in London and around the U.S.
Stage West’s production stars Kelsey Milbourn, Garret Storms, Matthew Grondin and Alexandra Lawrence.
The story brings together three 20-something Jewish cousins at their grandfather’s funeral, with a similarly aged gentile in the mix. They argue over a specific heirloom, which leads to discussions about the clashing of tradition and modernity, a common generational debate that happens with every religion and culture.
“The way [Harmon] attacks this situation is fearless. It’s so real and funny,” says Allen, whose play Starbright and Vine was produced at Stage West in 2014. “I think anyone who is slightly open-minded will respect the viewpoint.”
Allen has taught screenwriting and other courses at Texas Christian University for 23 years.
Allen, who is Jewish and is married to a cantor, has taught screenwriting and other courses at Texas Christian University in the film, TV and digital media department for 23 years.
From 1993 to 2002, he wrote for several daytime soaps, the longest stint being on Days of Our Lives. He won two Emmys for writing on As the World Turns. But his master’s degree is in theater, and he says he is happy to return to his theatrical roots.
Talent runs in the family. His 23-year-old daughter, Rebecca M. Allen, has a musical called We Are the Tigers, a cheerleader murder mystery, opening at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Los Angeles on the same weekend that Bad Jews opens at Stage West.
As for the themes in Bad Jews, they are things he says he has experienced in his own family and with his children. He’s even found parallels of the four characters in the play to four women in a popular Jewish midrash, or rabbinic literature, often told at Passover Seder.
“With Judaism it’s not just about the ritual and religion; there’s that racial and ethnic element to it,” Allen says. “We are who we are and we all have different ways of dealing with who we are — and we can’t run away from who we are.”
There has even been writing from rabbis about Bad Jews, some praising it for the questions it stirs, and some warning that it could be offensive to Orthodox Jews.
When Allen mentioned it to the president of a New York synagogue, an older Jewish woman he has known for a long time, he wasn’t sure what response to expect.
She said, “Oh, I saw that in Florida, and it’s adorable.”