By: David Sheward
Religion and relatives clash in Joshua Harmon’s blistering comedy Bad Jews, now at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theater after a limited run at the company’s Underground space last season. Set in a crowded but expensive Manhattan apartment, this politically incorrect power play pits ultra-observant Daphna Feygenbaum against her spoiled secular cousin Liam Haber.
Even their names are at opposite poles-Daphna was born Diana but rechristened herself after a visit to Israel, while Liam bears an Irish moniker though his Hebrew name is Schlomo. These diametrically opposed antagonists are in a death match over their just-deceased grandfather’s chai necklace, which was carried through the Holocaust.
Daphna feels she should have it because she’s unquestionably the most religious of the grandchildren, while Liam stakes his claim as the eldest male and he wants the keepsake to propose to his Gentile girlfriend, Melody. Liam’s quieter brother Jonah seems to only desire a good night’s sleep as all four including Melody must share quarters the night before shiva for grandpa.
Harmon asks difficult questions about cultural conflicts, including how important it is to preserve Jewish tradition in an increasingly nondenominational, melting-pot world. He doesn’t provide answers, and the characters, endowed with Harmon’s pungent and pithy dialogue, are an intensely realistic mix of petty and pure. Daphna is insufferably self-righteous but fiercely intelligent and sincere in her push for preservation. Liam may be entitled and nasty, but he’s also open and loving toward Melody, who is more than a bit shallow yet kind toward Daphna-at first. Only Jonah’s emotions remain hidden, until a startlingly climactic revelation.
Director Daniel Aukin uses Lauren Helpern’s elegantly confined space to its best advantage. The battling four must crawl over sofa beds and inflatable mattresses, constantly butting up against each other literally and figuratively.
Tracee Chimo miraculously keeps the obnoxious Daphna from descending into caricature. She puts across the young woman’s anger and narcissism, but also her deep insecurities. Her physical choices are also fascinating. Watch as she channels Daphna’s rage through combing out her tangled hair, venting years of indignation at Liam and his side of the family with every brutal brushstroke. Michael Zegen skillfully displays Liam’s fiery temper but also presents the young man’s side of the struggle passionately. Molly Ranson gives us an interesting mix of ditziness and determination. Philip Ettinger has probably the most challenging assignment, since Jonah is mostly reactive throughout the play and his final statement of allegiance is a silent one, yet he conveys this internal struggle with mute eloquence. They’re a brilliant quartet of Bad Jews.
Oct. 3-Dec. 15. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre Company at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 2pm. One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. $77-87. (212) 719-1300. www.roundabouttheatre.org
Originally Published on October 14, 2013 in ArtsinNY.com