Kala Savage in A Bad Friend(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Kala Savage in A Bad Friend
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jules Feiffer has said that Naomi, the implacably pro-Stalinist character who sucks the air theatrically from A Bad Friend, is somewhat based on his older sister, Mimi. He's also reported that, in his new play about New York Jews during the politically ominous '50s, Naomi's questioning daughter Rose is a version of himself. Feiffer hasn't said how much he has reshaped Naomi from the sibling with whom he grew up, but there's no denying that the woman who rants through this compelling drama has the dimensions of a domestic monster. The extent to which audiences believe in her will go some way towards determining acceptance of the undeniably engaged and engaging work.

Behaving like what would in today's psychobabble be classified as a rage-aholic, Naomi (Jan Maxwell) chastises husband Shelly (Jonathan Hadary) and 18-year-old Rose (Kala Savage) whenever they doubt the idealism of Stalin's Soviet Union. Since Feiffer has set his play in 1953, just after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were condemned to death and just before and after Stalin's demise, Naomi is especially exercised when anyone suggests that the United States isn't the more corrupt of the superpowers. She also won't tolerate anyone's maintaining that anti-Semitism, which she sees as the real reason for the Rosenberg sentence, exists in the Russian hierarchy.

When the intermittently acquiescent Shelly tells Naomi that he's begun questioning the legitimacy of the 1953 Doctors Plot, in which nine physicians -- six of them Jews -- were charged with planning the murders of party officials, Naomi balks. When Shelly musters the courage to express concern about the Russian law prohibiting Jews from emigrating, Naomi erupts in an aria of dismay and disgust, proclaiming: "I'm surrounded by people I love who aren't up for the struggle!" Included among the perceived in-house traitors is her screenwriter brother Morty (Mark Feuerstein), who, though committed to the cause, is making a name for himself by writing Hollywood westerns.

Discussion of the blacklisted writer Carl Foreman's High Noon as a metaphor for progressives at work doesn't appease Naomi, whose ideological stance knows no bounds; she spots capitalistic plots everywhere. That's what upsets Rose, who's trying to find her way as the daughter of parents who hold political beliefs she can't share. When Rose comes home with the news that she's gotten a promotion -- stockroom girl to saleslady -- at her Abraham & Straus summer job, Naomi smells that no pay raise was included. As Rose stands crestfallen, Naomi blurts: "Rosie, it's as if all these years you haven't listened to a single word said in this house." When Emil (Larry Bryggman), a landscape painter whom Rose has befriended on the Brooklyn Heights esplanade, is revealed to be more sinister than he seems, Naomi spews: "This is proof positive of what happens when you reject Marxist-Leninism." That line gets a laugh, but it's not clear if the renowned humorist Feiffer is looking for one.

On the surface, Feiffer's goal in writing A Bad Friend was to make a play about his experiences growing up in the '50s, when the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings were so deleterious that at least one named Communist Party member -- actor Philip Loeb -- took his life rather than live with the impoverishing consequences of blacklisting. During the course of the play, Morty describes the memorial service for another blacklisted actor, J. Edward Bromberg. (Feiffer actually attended the event, so the play's report is first-hand.)

The playwright's way of reviewing the McCarthy years for an audience, and thereby clarifying them for himself, is to look at Rose's family and two unlikely acquaintances through Rose's searching eyes. The young woman shuffles from the living room, where her parents and uncle wield as much adult influence on her as possible, to the esplanade, where she turns increasingly to the avuncular Emil for the tenderness and understanding that's not forthcoming at home. (Emil is based on an esplanade habitué whom Feiffer knew.) Also pursuing Rose on her outdoor treks is an FBI agent, identified in the program as Fallon (David Harbour), who relentlessly tries to inveigle incriminating information about Rose's activist family. Before Feiffer ends his exploration of dark times past, more than one of the characters has been traduced for ambivalent reasons.

Kala Savage and Larry Bryggman in A Bad Friend(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Kala Savage and Larry Bryggman in A Bad Friend
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Feiffer has written a political, though not polemical, piece; but to see the play as only that is to miss its perhaps even more significant psychological observation. By placing Rose quite literally between her nattering family and the supposedly benign Emil, the dramatist -- whose last play, Eliott Loves, was presented a decade ago -- positions her between two forces at a vulnerable time in her maturation. Feiffer is posing the question, "From whom will Rose derive the most beneficial explicit and implicit counsel?" His suggested reply isn't cut-and-dried. Not unlike Li'l Bit, the focal character in Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive who's raised with a child-molesting uncle, the resilient Rose survives the potentially dire consequences of her upbringing to become a well-adjusted wife and mother at play's end. The lessons she learned about her mother's unwavering sense of conviction have real weight.

All of this doesn't mean Feiffer has acquitted himself (no pun intended) cleanly. While making Naomi the termagant she almost always is, he omits possible explanations for the basis of her fury. He also has Morty mention that his and Naomi's mother was strong but not political, and leaves it there. More ought to be revealed to make Naomi recognizable as something other than an emblematic socialist crusader.

This oversight is somewhat compounded by director Jerry Zaks; he has made an odd choice about the mysterious Fallon figure, whom no one but Rose sees. Every time Fallon materializes, Zaks has lighting designer Paul Gallo darken the stage. This seems to imply that no such person exists in Rose's world; but Fallon manifestly and chillingly does exist in Feiffer's script, which nowhere calls for such lighting effects. (Incidentally, the first time the agent is shown, he's in the audience. If Zaks wants to say that similar repressive forces remain among us, he's stretching the point here.)

Otherwise, the director coaxes cunning performances from the cast members as they traverse Douglas Stein's understated, predominantly gray set and in William Ivey Long's predominantly gray and brown period clothes. (In a stage direction, Feiffer writes, "The characters in this play reflect a black and white world, no colors, few grays." Zaks may have wanted his design team to undercut obvious symbolism by stressing gray as figuratively more true to life's moral conflicts.) The blonde, classical featured Jan Maxwell may not be everyone's idea of a Brooklyn housewife with a mezuzah on her door, but she holds nothing back in displaying Naomi's stormy nature. Although Kala Savage delivers too many speeches in a leaden, declarative manner, she nonetheless infuses Rose with troubled humanity. Jonathan Hadary, Mark Feuerstein, Larry Bryggman, and David Harbour are persuasive.

Before the play begins, The Weavers are heard intoning anthems like "This Land is Your Land." In A Bad Friend, with its cleverly ambiguous title, Jules Feiffer effectively recalls a time (is it over?) when the deed to the land wasn't quite so certain.