Bad Jews, an apparent heir, and a rock critic
By Myron Meisel
I can remember the disapproving dismay clucking through suburban Newark, New Jersey, aroused by the satiric observations of the early Philip Roth, and could never have imagined myself partaking of the same chagrin as my parents felt in reaction to the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, which I thought was pretty dead-on from my own experience of that period.
That is, until Joshua Harmon’s scathing behavioral dissection of at least a portion of the clan, Bad Jews , an intense comedy of appalling manners, arrived at the Geffen with a hit pedigree that Variety calculated as the third most-produced new play of the past year.
Midway through I found myself thinking, in all sincerity, that while it might be alright for Jews to grapple with this shocking display of extreme caricature grounded in recognizable reality, I sure hoped none of the goyim were watching: they might not understand.
Gathering for the funeral of the family patriarch, a Shoah survivor, his three student grandchildren are constrained to share the tiny square footage of a posh Upper West Side studio apartment (the bathroom boasts killer views of the Hudson). This being the fourth play I’ve attended in about as many weeks with the same setup (see also below), it’s beginning to appear that this particular chestnut may be challenging deceased children as the most persistent of situational ploys.
Daphna (nee’ Diana) Feygenbaum (Molly Ephraim) wants only a single bequest: the gold “Chai” necklace her grandpa wore, on the grounds that of the descendants, she is the only one to embrace Jewish traditions, and therefore would care most deeply about the heirloom. Her cousin Jonah (Raviv Ullman) doesn’t want it himself (he has his own surprise memento), but passionately wishes to disengage from any prospective conflict with his awaited elder brother Liam (Ari Brand), who whilst skiing in Aspen ostensibly lost his cellphone on the lift, so has already missed the actual funeral. (Jews go in the ground with every haste.) When Liam arrives accompanied provocatively by his latest girlfriend Melody, a shiksa incarnate with a full-calf tattoo of a treble clef, he is just as obsessed, for his own reasons, with possession of the disputed patrimony.
Daphna, who starts off a Roman candle, escalates to fireworks, and then, to heavy artillery, as she caustically indicts the motives and character of her rival cousin and his hapless companion, applying laserlike insights with ruthlessly unmodulated manipulation through guilt. For his part, Liam takes no prisoners either in his ruthless confrontational egocentrism and brute aggression. While gentiles on stage certainly don’t lack a facility for invective, the peculiar ferocity of these arguments captures a distinctively ethnic penchant for vehemently judgmental debate, in both language and tactics, the unique position by which Jews can claw their way to survival against all odds, even as the stakes attenuate from generation to generation.
Harmon’s ear is extraordinarily acute, and the dialogue zings and stings. Director Matt Shakman, founder and artistic director of the Black Dahlia company, which had been emblematic of that best of Los Angeles stagework now condemned to extermination at the hands of Actors Equity’s final solution, knows how to maintain a cauldron at such vigorous boil so as to create intolerable claustrophobia for an audience even in a space as large as the Geffen’s main Gilbert Cates house. There’s no intermission: we’re trapped with these people for the duration, and so can’t avoid the embarrassing discomfiture of their irresistible compulsion to entertain no compromise and give no quarter, to hold the floor or be wiped up with it.
The play, understandably a bit overeager to please given its relentless drive to shock and awe, stretches for some easy laughs, which Shakman, now a television stalwart, knows how to land, providing some arbitrary release from otherwise unremitting emotional tension. Given the pile-driving momentum of emotional savagery, it would have better not to spare the audience, as the play leaves no salvation for the characters from the hells they create for themselves by projecting their profoundly irretrievable insecurities unto one another. The rhetoric of aggression disguised as self-righteousness proves more than funny enough. The cousins accuse one another of being self-hating Jews: the twist being that they are self-haters who happen to express themselves through the diatribes of their tribal heritage.
These are meaty roles, providing ample comic challenges of dramatic heavy-lifting, and all prove up to the mordant task of sustaining prolonged arias of insult and outrage, while still suggesting the roiling narcisism underneath. Like the songs “Johnny One-Note” or “One Note Samba”, they make terrifically intricate melodies out of purporting to stick to a singularly repeated tone. Ephraim, in particular, has been equipped with a Kabuki-tinged stylization of hand gestures so intricately orchestrated that she may as well be signing her role. It’s daring in its fearless miming of stereotype, so scorching it’s right up to the boundary line of offensive, over-the-top entirely within character.
David Ives’s“translaptation” of Jean-Francois Regnard’s 1708 farce The Heir Apparent (Le Legataire Universel), at International City Theatre, also involves a gathering to squabble over inheritance, only this time the corpse-to-be remains very much alive: an ailing, stingy uncle, Geronte (Matthew Henerson), determined to cheat not only death and decripitude but also his natural heir, impecunious nephew Eraste (Wallace Angus Bruce), depriving him of both windfall and the hand of his knockout young fiancee Isabelle (Suzanne Jolie Narbonne), who he intends to marry this very day. Only the strenous improvisations of his resourceful servant Crispin (Adam J. Smith) and his own fiancée, Geronte’s maid Lisette (Paige Lindsey White), contrive eventually to save the day for all and to find and restore a more natural order.
Perhaps best known for Venus in Fur and All in the Timing, Ives has devoted nearly as much of his career to canny adaptations of the works of others, ranging from Mark Twain (Is He Dead?) to Feydeau to 33 American musicals for the New York City Center Encores! series. His surpassingly delicious verse version of Corneille’s The Liar was one of the great highlights of last season as performed by our Antaeus company.
Regnard has himself been resurrected by Ives’s ministrations. The missing link between Molière, who died when Regnard was 18, and Beaumarchais, he was phenomenally successful in his lifetime and for a century thereafter, but fell out of fashion as 19th century tastes abandoned artifice for verismo. No critic could surpass Voltaire’s succinct dictum that “Whoever doesn’t enjoy Regnard doesn’t deserve to admire Molière.”
Regnard, perhaps even more than his celebrated forebear, steeped for years in Italian commedia (Paris-style), and his farce accordingly propels itself far more dynamically than the Master’s constructions, reimagined for his different era. This, his greatest (and last) triumph, transparently reworks the model of The Imaginary Invalid imbued with its own manic urge for verbal drollery and physical humor.
Regnard zealously gets drunk on witty eloquence and frenetic complications, and his contagious pursuit of anything for a laugh clearly infects Ives, who boldly attempts to find seemingly endless modern correlatives for the feral and fecund rhyming couplets. Ives fearlessly courts anachronism with contemporary slang and references, and relishes his unrepentant fun with groaners as much as sparklers.
It’s all most deft and knowing, though perhaps allowing us too readily in on the jokes. One starts to see them coming, which, along with the predictable mechanics of the farcical beats, grows rather less amusing as matters progress, not entirely assisted by Ives’s commendable insistence on improving on the original with extensive amplification of conventions. Though this refurbishing makes a thoroughly persuasive case for Regnard’s talent and critical importance, he nevertheless remains equal neither of Molière nor Beaumarchais, even if we can see how Feydeau & Co. might be unimaginable without him. Similarly, Ives’s The Liar far outstrips his accomplishment here. (There, he was working with a true masterpiece, not merely an historical one, and Ives flourished in his inventions.)
International City Theatre has recruited a superb team to realize this modern vision of a buried chestnut, and everyone does such superlatively idiomatic work that it’s hard to pinpoint just where things go more labored than effervescent. Director Matt Walker, not merely the artistic director of the Troubadour Theater Company but also an adjunct professor of clowning and commedia at USC, could not be more fluent in both the original idiom and the freewheeling mixing up with contemporary sensibilities, and the actors are to a person crisp purveyors of a difficult style. Thankfully, the lagging second act receives a considerable jolt of eccentric mannerism with the most minor character of all, the most diminutive lawyer Scruple (Adam von Almen), whose vocabulary of absurd gestures builds to a crescendo of frenzied tics that bespeaks the limitless invention possible in a pair of walk-ons.
A solo show based on the writing of Lester Bangs, How To Be a Rock Critic, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, and performed by Jensen, is making its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (a co-production with South Coast Repertory, where it was performed the weekend before coming to Culver City), but not in the theatre itself: rather, upstairs in a classroom off the balcony, where other fine work has been presented in the past to those privileged enough to occupy the few seats available. It deserves a longer, if not necessarily larger, run.
Bangs, with his uninhibited prose and rabidly personal take on pop music, remains the patron saint of rock critics, martyred at 33 by demons not unlike those of many musicians he idolized and in turn rejected for their inevitable failings. Dying young, Bangs was not so much untouched by the ravages of time as he lived fast and left one unregenerately ugly corpse. Though contemporaries, when he was writing, I had not been much interested in his subject, only starting to convert and open my ears around the time he died. Still, our concepts of criticism and how to write it developed along parallel and simultaneous lines, and it was impossible therefore not to be touched by this exercise in suggesting his ecstasies and torments, though the latter we thankfully did not share. (At this remove, one has the liberty to feel old.)
Blank and Jensen fashion a strategy to convey Bangs’ combination of ornery rebellion, frustrated idealism, sociopolitical analysis and punk nihilism that nurtured his ability to stay original and true to his passion despite repeated disillusion. The underlying theme is that Bangs was the ultimate fan with immense integrity to his identification, not with the higher ambitions of rock music, which he found gaseous and fraudulent, but to the guts of the ethos of teenage disaffection to which he brought an adult alienation that was richer than most of what he reviewed, the irony of which he remained acutely aware.
Promoting garage music over corporate marketing (preferring Count Five and The Troggs to the Beatles), a rhapsodic acolyte of Astral Weeks, and present at the creation of the concept of punk during his fabled tenure at CREEM, Bangs remained an eternal arrested adolescent even as his intellectual development never stopped maturing, however lurchingly. Not inadvertently, there are also intimations of the male self-absorption and implied gender privilege that in hindsight colors the very foundations of rock’s historical aesthetics.
It is no small act of hubris to challenge the indelible cameo that Philip Seymour Hoffman limned of Bangs in all but name in Almost Famous, and Jensen sagely stakes out completely different ground. While the text gyrates between Bangs as a cough-syrup swilling lout and as congenial tour guide into esoteric appreciation of the essence of the artform, Jensen’s manic magnetism as performer papers over many of the dramaturgical limitations of the concept to create a cautionary figure that encourages, nay, demands, that obsession be part of the quest, however futile, for a meaningful existence.
Richard Hoover’s best touch in his savvy production design of vinyl record album covers is the presence on the cluttered floor of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful by the 19 year old Edmund Burke, as evocative of the essence of Bangs as any invocation of what he himself would indubitably consider false nostalgia for the past.
Bad Jews, The Geffen Playhouse, through July 19, (310) 208-5454 www.GeffenPlayhouse.com
The Heir Apparent, International City Theatre, Long Beach, through July 12, (562) 436-4610 www.InternationalCityTheatre.org
How To Be a Rock Critic, Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, through June 28, (213) 628-2772 www.centertheatregroup.org