The Veil of Youthful Comedy

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Playwright Joshua Harmon's bio for the Geffen Playhouse production of his play, Bad Jews, proudly proclaims it's the third most frequently produced play in America this past season.

It's easy to see why the American regional theater would flock to this play.

For starters, it's got demography on its side: playing to an older audience through the veil of youthful comedy.

The beloved patriarch of a Jewish family, "Poppy," has died. As the play opens we're in the upscale studio apartment of his grand kids. Two of the three have just come back from the funeral, Jonah and his cousin Daphna. Liam, Jonah's older brother, missed the funeral for a ski trip to Aspen with his shiksa girlfriend, Melody. The dramatic engine for the play revolves around Poppy's "chai," a golden amulet that was with Poppy through the Holocaust. Now, this isn't just any piece of jewelry, it's a family heirloom with much lore. Daphna, who's the family's 'super Jew,' wants it -- as she's the most religiously inclined. Heck, she's got a boyfriend in the Israeli army. Liam wants it for his own reasons, none religiously defensible – at least in Daphna's eyes. Jonah just wants to stay out of the middle of it and to Melody, it's all just a foreign mystery.

What ensues is a comedy about Jewish heritage and values. On its surface the question is "what does it mean to be a Jew?" More broadly, it's a legacy play. There's very little in this play you haven't heard before but it’s well packaged top to bottom. It's a comedy with a dark but accessible edge — it manages to make a laugh line out of accusations like "Do NOT Holocaust me!" It also has an anthropological voyeurism allowing you to watch a particular tribe rip each other apart with nasty, stereotypical insults and not be offended — at least, not initially.

Structurally, it's tight: single setting, single scene that unfolds across the play's 90 minutes. The setting has everyone on top of each other sleeping on air mattresses at an extraordinary moment. You've got the outsider, Melody, who allows all the necessary family backstory to come out. And ultimately, you have a closing moment revelation-of-character that has you reimagining the whole evening. It's taut and no wonder that Mr. Harmon, a recent Juilliard fellow, is being hailed as a hot new playwright.

Bad Jews real genius is that it understands its audience. Spend more than a couple of minutes in a regional theater lobby and you appreciate that this aging audience is the opposite of the blockbuster movie crowd. What better way to speak to their concerns than through their grand kids posthumously telling them how important they were. If you're a regional theater — it's a no-brainer: speak to your core audience and get a young cast at the same time.

The bigger question for the American theater is the same question posed by the play: what do we do when this generation is gone?

Bad Jews plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through July 26.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: (L-R) Molly Ephraim, Lili Fuller and Ari Brand in Bad Jews at the Geffen Playhouse