Theater: GSP play tackles good Jew/bad Jew divide

Theater: GSP play tackles good Jew/bad Jew divide

Laura Lapidus relishes third time playing Daphna in ‘new world’ of 2017

Laura Lapidus, left, as Daphna, engages with her cousin Liam’s “shiksa” girlfriend, Melody (Maddie Jo Landers), in George Street Playhouse's production of “Bad Jews.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Laura Lapidus, left, as Daphna, engages with her cousin Liam’s “shiksa” girlfriend, Melody (Maddie Jo Landers), in George Street Playhouse's production of “Bad Jews.” Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew?

While you may not find the definitive answer in “Bad Jews” — the raucous comedy coming to New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse (GSP) on March 21 — what you will find, according to Laura Lapidus, is a torrent of tough questions that may help you consider that self-assessment.

And she ought to know: This is Lapidus’s third run in the provocative play by Joshua Harmon — which The New York Times called “the best comedy of the season” in its world premiere Off-Broadway in 2012 in a Roundabout Theatre Company production. 

The setting for “Bad Jews” is an Upper West Side studio, where 20-somethings Daphna and her cousins — brothers Liam and Jonah — come together after their grandfather’s funeral. At the start, Daphna is declaiming her right to inherit a chai necklace their “Poppy” concealed while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. 

With the arrival of Liam — with girlfriend Melody in tow — a caustic family feud erupts. He too wants the symbol of life, and he and Daphna take up arms in a family theater of war, engaging in combat over worldviews, religious beliefs, cultural assimilation, family legacies, and, of course, money and the primacy of male heirs. 

Daphna believes her right to the necklace is unassailable; she is, after all, the most “Jewish” grandchild — she even threw off her assimilationist birth name, Diana, in favor of the Hebrew Daphna and has plans to set off for the Holy Land to join her Israeli boyfriend and study with a rabbi. 

Liam sees the chai as a personal symbol of his grandfather’s survival and their family legacy, and believing himself to be its natural inheritor, despite his rejection of Judaism and his “shiksa” girlfriend.

By now, Lapidus, is battle-scarred but deeply committed to staging the brawl yet again. She portrayed Daphna in 2015 productions in Washington, D.C., and in Chicago and Skokie, Ill. 

She first took on the role with the realization that “I ask myself all the time a lot of the questions that the play asks,” she said in a phone interview with NJJN. 

Born in Chicago, Lapidus was part of that city’s theater scene for six years — after graduating from University of Michigan, where she studied acting — and moved to New York last summer. 

She was raised Jewish and became bat mitzvah in a Reform synagogue.But  in her youth, she said, being Jewish was something she “didn’t think twice about.” Judaism was never forced upon her — although her parents are pleased that she embraces her Jewish identity as “very important to me and a big part of who I am.” 

“Bad Jews” speaks to her because — though she said  has not figured out a “specific way to define myself as a Jewish person religiously” — she subscribes to the notion “that religious beliefs cannot be inherited,” and relishes the playwright’s goal of demonstrating that “religion needs to be something a person comes to on their own.” 

While she regarded the role as “a really special part, personally and professionally,” Lapidus said she thought “that was it” for her and Daphna after the D.C. run — and then the George Street Playhouse opportunity came up. Before the start of rehearsals, she said, she became “so excited to come back to the play, because it feels to me that we live in a little bit of a different time now.”

That different time, she said, has made the “disputes over the gender roles and the cultural and historical aspects of Jewish identity that play out in the main conflict of the piece” particularly meaningful. 

Part of that she attributes to the dynamics of the presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Lapidus watched how the public processed the behavior of those two individuals and observed that men and women had “access to different modes of being,” diverging manners of interaction that emerged in the lead-up to the election — and are strongly reflected in “Bad Jews.”

As for the play’s various perspectives on American-Jewish identity, Lapidus said, “I have a really clear understanding of what it means to be a modern Jew in America,” especially under the shadow of the Holocaust. After all, “our culture and world and tribe were threatened so recently, we still need to be protective and maintain a moral compass to see the world through a new mode of dissent and identity searching.” 

That sense of protective pride is another reason the play’s vicious rows have made her welcome the challenge of playing Daphna in 2017 America. In reaction to one phrase the character uses to launch a challenge to her cousin’s rejection of Judaism — “Now, when it’s safer to be Jewish than it’s ever been…” — Lapidus said, “I don’t know if that’s true today.”

If Daphna is the “good” Jew of the play, does the fact that her character is an opinionated, aggressive, smug, holier-than-thou type of 22-year-old raise fears of perpetuating a new negative Jewish girl stereotype — albeit an “anti-JAP” image?

Lapidus acknowledged that Daphna isn’t perfect and “does not behave in a way that is free of responsibility.” She is, said Lapidus, “fighting to get a little bit of status in her family, and she unravels a bit.”

Despite Daphna’s flaws, Lapidus said, she has “a special kind of belief in her; I understand her antics from the inside out.”

She remembers how sad she was at the end of her last appearance in “Bad Jews,” wondering when she would have “another chance to play a woman fighting for her intellectual and moral status.” She said she is grateful for the kind of part not usually written, calling Harmon a “great playwright” for having done so.

In fact, Lapidus said, it is a display of the playwright’s “genius” that he “vividly and clearly presents the two sides as interesting and valid…and asks audience members to figure out where they fit in.”

(Lapidus was also glad to mention that Harmon’s play “Significant Other,” another Roundabout production, opened this month at The Booth Theatre in its — and his — Broadway debut.)

What have been audience members’ reactions to Daphna and the play? “It has such specificity to American Jews,” Lapidus said, posing “real questions for so many people who are now trying to be good and do good and cultivate a strong sense of who we are.”

The play has elicited a “huge” range of responses, said Lapidus, although the laughter that greets it seems to be universal. Following one performance, a woman accosted her in the lobby and said, “Oh, you were such a bitch.” Another time, in Chicago, a woman waited for her after the show and, through tears, thanked her for her portrayal and for embodying the exact questions she was searching to answer during years laden with family troubles.

Of course, Lapidus doesn’t expect a simple repetition of her prior experiences playing Daphna. Any play, she said, “needs to be set up with a kind of balance.” Jessica Stone, director of the GSP production, is in charge of striking that balance, and Lapidus is wondering if now, in what many see as a more dangerous time, Daphna’s character may be softened a bit and made more protective of her Jewish identity. The “harder she is, the more annoying she is,” said Lapidus, but in today’s climate Stone may prefer that her personality not turn the audience off to her strong views, which Lapidus considers more “necessary” now. 

“As an actor, the last thing I would say is, ‘This is how I do it,’” said Lapidus, adding that she is excited to once again take on the “inner life of this person I love fighting for, looking forward to jumping in with new people in this new world of the play, here in New Jersey.”

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