Photos By Justin Saglio
Daphna Feygenbaum is devout, passionate, driven, and manipulative. And Alison McCartan, who has stepped into Daphna’s shoes for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Joshua Harmon’s play “Bad Jews,” is three of these things—unless she is manipulative, and then maybe I’ve been duped.
On a Thursday morning, three weeks into rehearsals of the dark comedy—a play that’s raised eyebrows for its name and received critical acclaim for its previous runs—McCartan sits with her back to a cluttered studio apartment set and excitedly discusses her latest role. But before she gets to all that, or describing her life as a Boston Conservatory alumna and an actress living in Manhattan, she remembers herself as a young Minnesotean with a taste for the stage. McCartan says she was enrolled in dance classes by her parents when she was four years old and felt immediately comfortable in the limelight. A few years later, she recalls going to a production of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” and, bright-eyed with wonder, leaning over to her mother to say, “That’s going to be me one day.” (To be clear, she was talking about acting, not being a devious green-haired villain who needs a community-wide intervention to get into the holiday spirit.)
Graduating from “BoCo,” as she affectionately refers to her alma mater, a triple threat, she landed an agent and has steadily added creds to her resume. Her first post-collegiate role was in “Shrek: The Musical,” a lighthearted production that had her trekking around the country in tour buses and tolerating one-night stopovers in motels. McCartan has nothing but positive things to say about the previous productions she’s been a part of, but she noticeably lights up when conversation turns to her path from selling merch at the New York City production of “Bad Jews” to landing the role of the ever-abrasive Daphna in the New England Premiere.
“There was a show in New York for a long time called ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes,’ so that’s what I thought [‘Bad Jews’] was at first,” says McCartan, with a laugh. “The first few shows I just worked from the foyer, and listened to lines of dialogue over the monitor and kept hearing the actors yell at each other, and I’m like, ‘What is this play? This is not ‘Old Jews Telling Jokes.’”
Far from it, McCartan would learn when she sat in on a performance. Harmon’s tale, which runs 90 minutes without intermission, chronicles two Jewish cousins battling over a coveted family heirloom after the death of their grandfather. In a cramped Manhattan apartment, words are volleyed more aggressively and with more purpose than tennis balls at Wimbledon, as the cousins, Daphna (pious and uncompromising), and Liam (nontraditional and self-centered) make their respective cases for their late grandfather’s amulet. In the process, they, and bystanders Jonah and Melody, explore what it means to be young, cultured, and religious—or not—and what that means for their own identities, as well as their relationships with one another.
McCartan says she was riveted by the performance of Tracee Chimo—Saugus-born actress, and coincidentally, a SpeakEasy alum—as Daphna, but she said that it took multiple viewings for her to completely understand the character’s complexity.
McCartan hopes to bring a roundness to the role that will expose Daphna completely to the audience in one take. “I don’t think we will have the luxury of having audience members coming to see the show two, three times necessarily,” says McCartan. “So ideally, I’d like people to walk away after one performance not necessarily loving her—I love her—but seeing that she comes from a good place.”
The evening before our interview, McCartan nimbly works through a scene with with Gillian Mariner Gordon, who plays Melody, Liam’s girlfriend, a mousy, meek blonde. Melody and Daphna have just met each other and Daphna, as usual, is skeptical of the girl Liam has brought home, as they are typically daffy and non-Jewish, and therefore, in Daphna’s opinion, not fit for her cousin. In the first take, Daphna looks like a lion ready to pounce, and in the second, after carefully considering director Rebecca Bradshaw’s notes, she retracts her claws, but keeps her eyes on Melody, her target. The tension in the room as the pair spar about Liam, tattoos, religion, of course, and their origins, boils. It spills over when Daphna, in a calm yet accusatory tone, ends a monologue about how Melody couldn’t be an “Indigenous Delawarean” with, “What I’m asking is where did your family come from before they came to Delaware to perpetrate genocide?” Moments later, when Bradshaw calls cut, both actresses look shaken by the power of the scene. Under the wrong direction and with the wrong actress, it’d be easy to see Daphna soley as a villain here, but even in this in-progress snapshot, McCartan teases out her humanity.
“She just has a lot of insecurities and vulnerabilities, but she’s just a person who is trying to get what she wants and stands up for what she believes is right,” says McCartan. “What makes her different is that she’ll do whatever she can to get what she wants. I think that it is very easy for people to see that that is her biggest weakness, but I also want people to see that it’s her biggest strength.”
BAD JEWS. CALDERWOOD PAVILION AT THE BCA, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. FRI 10.24 – SAT 11.29. FOR SHOWTIMES AND TICKETS, VISIT SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM