When Dina Thomas read Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” she discovered an argumentative, smart, acerbic young woman named Daphna who reminded her a lot of somebody she knew quite well: Dina Thomas.
Thomas is Jewish. So is Daphna. Thomas speaks in rapid-fire, complete thoughts. So does Daphna. Thomas is aggressive. So is Daphna. Thomas is an only child. So is Daphna.
Thomas said recently that she vividly remembers her reaction after reading Harmon’s script: “I turned to Mark and said, ‘I don’t think I have to actually act. I think I might be this person.’”
It was Dina, in fact, who brought the play to the attention of Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s artistic director. Now Thomas and her colleagues Mark Thomas (Dina’s husband), Doogin Brown and Erika Baker are performing Harmon’s extended one-act for Levin at the Unicorn.
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Samuel French, the play’s publisher, categorizes the piece as “comedy” as well as “faith-based.” Harmon’s 90-minute play, which has won praise for its take-no-prisoners humor and provocative dialogue, depicts a fractious family gathering following the death of a beloved grandfather. In addition to Daphna, there are her cousins Liam and Jonah and Liam’s gentile girlfriend, Melody.
The question that emerges is just how Jewish must one be to be considered “authentic.” Much of the action focuses on the verbal fireworks between Daphna, who is planning a trip to Israel and resolutely identifies as Jewish, and the secular Liam, who rejects Daphna’s supposition that some people are more Jewish than others.
The play received mostly positive reviews when it opened off-Broadway in New York in 2013. In his critique of the 2014 production in Bath, England, Michael Billington of the Guardian wrote that the play, while not flawless, shows that “Harmon has the capacity to write scalding rhetoric.”
“I auditioned for this play about six or seven times (in New York), and I kept getting really close to getting it, and finally I thought I should just send it to Cynthia,” Dina Thomas said. “I just thought she should read this. There weren’t a lot of plays I had come across that dealt with young Jews in contemporary culture. It was the first play like that I had come across in a long time.”
Thomas grew up in a home she described as “conservative to moderate” Orthodox.
“I couldn’t drive on Sunday,” she said. “My parents kept a kosher household. I grew up that way.
“Now I’ve chosen to kind of veer on a different spiritual life, but the customs are still there. So I definitely identify with all the references. I had 12 years of Jewish day education, and half of my family lives in Israel and they are extremely Orthodox.…
“In any religion, there’s always going to be certain family members who are more observant, and everyone has an opinion. There is always that question of who is the most Jewish, depending on how you practice your religion, and that can apply to any culture and any religion, really.”
In short, Daphna never avoids a fight. And she’s pretty good at picking one.
“She is fiercely strong in her commitment to family, even if nobody necessarily likes her and she doesn’t like anyone else,” Thomas said. “She honestly believes she is not saying anything wrong. She’s a real spitfire — witty, smart and broken all at the same time.… She cares on a really deep level.”
Mark Thomas, who was not raised Jewish but converted after deciding to marry Dina, plays Jonah, Liam’s younger brother. As Daphna and Liam go toe-to-toe, Jonah tries to keep his head down.
When Levin offered him a role in the show, he initially didn’t know whether she wanted him to play Jonah or Liam. But he didn’t care much.
“They all have killer lines,” he said.
He said the play was unique and doesn’t really invite comparison to other contemporary works.
“It has hints of any kind of great family drama,” he said. “It reminds me a little bit of (Tracy Letts’) ‘Killer Joe’ in that it’s a tightly knit family of people who can’t stand each other. They’re both biting, satirical comedies. And they both have to do with inheritance.…
“I think one of the major take-aways is how families interact with their own traditions. Every family has these traditions where you have to get together with people you don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time with.”
Brown, who is not Jewish, appeared in one of the Unicorn’s most successful productions, “My Name Is Asher Lev,” about a young Jewish artist who breaks with family tradition to pursue his artistic dreams. Levin said she basically taught Brown how to be a Jew to prepare him for the 2013 role.
“She did,” Brown said. “She took me under her wing as the uneducated goy that I was. We went to an Orthodox service at a local temple. I got to meet the rabbi. It was great to be immersed in a culture I knew very little about prior to that. I am very much a secular, left-wing kind of person.”
Brown had never worked with the Thomases, but he knew them and admired their abilities on stage. The chance to perform with them was one reason he decided to come back for this show. Brown relocated to Chicago two years ago, about the same time the Thomases, both graduates of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s graduate actor training program, moved to New York.
Levin said that after Dina Thomas sent her the play to read, she went to New York to see it. In most respects, it’s ideal for the Unicorn. It also happens to be one of the most-produced plays in regional theater this year.
Levin, who grew up in a Jewish home in the Northeast, said she found plenty to relate to in Harmon’s script. But the humor and dramatic intent make it accessible to a broad audience, regardless of religious or ethnic identity.
“It’s a tiny little play about characters and relationships, and I thought it was the perfect show for the Unicorn,” Levin said. “I find it to be such a wonderful blend of humor and serious subject matter. It’s about every family that probably has ever lived.”
Levin said the play’s humor, while potent, serves a larger purpose.
“Is it best to be the most religious, or does that matter?” she said “And does it matter for our future to hold on to our ethnic identity in this global world we live in? To embrace your culture and religion or to live with one another in one big world?”
“Bad Jews” runs through Nov. 16 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to unicorntheatre.org.