BWW Review: BAD JEWS at Black Box Performing Arts Center Of Teaneck, NJ
One evening, three cousins and one fiancé are cramped into an Upper West Side studio apartment (with great views of the Hudson) mourning the cousin's grandfather. Joshua Harmon's "Bad Jews" revolves around the question of who will inherit a family relic, a Chai necklace the dead man kept in his possession throughout his years in Auschwitz and gave to his wife as an engagement ring. Daphna (Molly Rose Heller), considers the Chai (the word means "life") a symbol of the survival of the Jewish faith, thinks it should be her's. Liam (David Meyers), views it as a romantic heirloom, wants to use it to propose to Melody (Emily Loews). Jonah just wants to be left out of the discussion and avoid the evening's explosiveness.
The play - like all great theater - raises questions and discussion points along the lines of what it means to be a Millennial assimilated Jew. Is it wrong to be skiing in Aspen instead of attending your grandfather's funeral? Is an artifact of survival used only because he can't afford a ring appropriate for a third generation marriage proposal to a non-Jew? What do these characters owe their faith and how should they exhibit it? What is a good Jew? Who hasn't found themselves puzzled by the actions and desires of the generation that preceded them?
The audience, more likely, wonders who raised these people, how, and why? Daphna and Liam are great roles, rich in venom and pointed intelligence - each has never met an argument they haven't won - whether by intellect or pure pit-bull resilience. As written, they're virtually inhuman and inhumane. They specifically tear at one another (he over her obsessive hair brushing); she over his study of Japanese culture. Though they bond over Liam's tenth birthday party at Benihana. The tension steadily builds to a final confrontation over the Chai. Watching it all, younger cousin Jonah (Michael Gardiner) warily and silently wishing for no conflict.
Funerals tend to bring out the worst in some people but Daphna's torrents of abuse on Liam, target the very person she needs to win over. Making this less about the Chai and more about winning and being regarded, as more than the poor cousin whose parents can't afford a hotel room.
Amid a torrent of words and insults, director Matt Okin draws a perilous line, bringing the audience in with material, which, if handled incorrectly, would be repellent. The dialogue is delivered at breakneck speed, with the victim Melody and quiet Jonah providing ballast to Daphna and Liam's frenetic tearing at one another in scenic designer Gerard Bourcier's authentically crowded studio apartment.
Heller's Daphna is rushes through with not enough shadings. There should me more quiet bite and charm to follow her bark. Meyers' Liam matches Daphna in knowledge and reason (or unreason ability) and resonates likability and romance. You believe he loves Melody and sees her as a way out of his family - despite the character's callowness. The final moments are crammed with drama and pathos that have little time to breathe. Loewus' Melody is appropriately ditsy and unfortunately not the bad singer required for the role. Her cluelessness and devotion to Liam is admirable considering everything he combats Daphna with. Gardiner's quietness brings appropriate gravitas.
This is no ethnic comedy. Conflicts of modernity and tradition function within any cultural framework, and with its canny humor and vibrant characterizations, Bad Jews offers a radioactive brew of neuroses and glee for audiences of all stripes. Good Jew, bad Jew none of it makes a difference if you're a horrible person.
Bad Jews plays through September 24th at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Teaneck. More information and tickets at www.blackboxpac.com