- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

You know you’re old when you remember the Iron Curtain. The days of the Cold War, Red scares, Stalin, Marxist doctrine at the dinner table and McCarthyism are evoked in “The Bad Friend,” a dreary retro portrait of a family of American communists in the 1950s.

Written by satirist and cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who based the play on his own youthful experiences with a family friend who turned out to be a Soviet spy, “The Bad Friend” shows vestiges of feisty humor and an intimate, bracing knowledge of what it must have been like to grow up in a lovingly combative leftist New York family. Yet Theater J’s production, under the direction of the usually solid Nick Olcott, is a largely humorless harangue — more politics than poetry.

The staging, which may have been informed by Lewis Folden’s pulpitlike set, emphasizes a declamatory style that is great if you are exhorting the workers to exceed the industrial-output targets of the five-year plan but deadly for a play. Dialogue turns into speechifying, and every exchange is weighed down by leaden rhetoric.

“The Bad Friend” centers on teenager Rose (Lily Balsen), a blurtingly honest young girl who has not inherited the family’s lefty genes. She wants to be an artist or a salesgirl at a department store — anything but marching for the Rosenbergs or poring over the Daily Worker newspaper with her parents, Naomi (Valerie Leonard) and Shelly (Jim Jorgensen). Rose’s sensibilities are more in tune with her jaunty uncle Morty (Field Blauvelt), a Hollywood screenwriter whose hero is Clifford Odets.

Living in a family that worships Stalin can make a girl lonely, so she befriends a cultivated stranger, Emil (Lawrence Redmond), in the park — a fellow artist who would rather talk about impressionism than socialism.

Over six months, the two form a candid bond over art, literature and Rose’s constant exasperation with her commie parents.

The scenes with Emil, full of candor and curiosity, mark the only times “The Bad Friend” rises from its torpor, but even then, the banter between the two is heavy on polemics and almost professorial in tone.

The real mood killers are the sequences with Naomi and Shelly, who never defeat the stereotypes of Jewish “progressives” (a code word for communists) — grim, dour souls ever-poised to pick a fight or argue a point to death. Miss Leonard’s Naomi is particularly merciless, something out of ethnic central casting, a battle-ax of a woman whose thumping vehemence carries an abrasive vigor. Mr. Jorgensen, as the nebbishy Shelly, fares little better, delivering his lines in a droning sing-song cadence.

Miss Balsen possesses the reckless spirit of a teenager, but her overenunciated speech sounds unnatural. Only Mr. Redmond seems to crawl from the wreckage relatively intact, giving a strange and gentlemanly performance as Emil.

This production of “The Bad Friend” suggests it is better to be Red than dead boring.

*

WHAT: “The Bad Friend” by Jules Feiffer

WHERE: Theater J, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 28.

TICKETS: $20 to $36

PHONE: 800/494-8497

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