BWW Review: Enthralling Performances and Smart Writing Make BAD JEWS a Comedic Success
Based on the title, one might assume that Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews is a play more specifically rooted in Judaism that it actually is. While Harmon's play does revolve around several Jewish characters vying for a relic from their recently deceased grandfather, the play is actually not about what makes someone a "bad Jew," but more broadly, what makes someone a bad person. The idea of the "bad" Jew (often a self-identification based on the admittance of being a non-practitioner of the faith) is broached throughout the play, but the details of this demarcation are a point of contest that allow the embattled characters to continue their fight for cultural validation by using their own definitions of "bad" and "Jewish." Bad Jews (directed by Jonathan Fox) shows characters striving beyond reasonable behavior for personal justice, regardless of collateral destruction. While the concept sounds dark, Bad Jews is entertaining and provocative--Ensemble's production is marked by robust comic execution, along with an appropriate level of poignancy, and many satisfying moments of simultaneous surprise and inevitability.
Bad Jews is a story that is, itself, based on the importance of storytelling, legend, and tradition. As the sole member of his family to survive the Holocaust, "Poppy" came to America and grew a fresh family tree. His two children and three grandchildren, Daphna (Eden Malyn), Liam (Adam Silver), and Jonah (Cory Kahane), were brought up hearing the horrifying details of the Jews' subjugation during World War II from a first-hand source. They all know the number tattooed on Poppy's arm by heart, and they all know the story of his Chai, a gold charm made up of Hebrew characters that represent the word for "Life." Poppy hid the Chai under his tongue during his time in a concentration camp to preserve the last relic of an exterminated family line. After Poppy's death, the Chai is up for grabs, having never been given to a specific recipient in the will.
Bad Jews is about this third generation of Poppy's family. Daphna, an only child, is a devout believer in the extreme importance of cultural, ethnic, and religious Judaism. She's a handful, to say the least, and her righteousness is grueling to the point of open hostility when she tries to push her less religiously observant cousins to understand the importance of (her version of) their family legacy. Daphna believes she should receive the Chai because she's the only cousin who relates to Judaism as Poppy did.
Daphna's perpetual brashness is a grind on her cousins, brothers Liam and Jonah, who have to share their apartment with her for the night after Poppy's funeral. Jonah does his best to avoid stake in the conversation, and tries not to take sides. Liam, however, who misses the funeral due to a skiing accident (one in which the only casualty was his iPhone), charges into the situation (with waspy girlfriend, Melody [Stephanie Burden], in tow) with fists brandished, ready to fight for his claim on the Chai.
It's clear from the outset that both Daphna and Liam are pushy, entitled, and stubborn, and their opposing views on the importance of religion and the meaning of family tradition brings out the worst in them both. The entire cast does an excellent job of maintaining tension throughout the play, especially when Liam and Daphna each plead their case for inheriting the chai. Both characters have a legitimate claim on the piece, and each claim comes from a place of love and respect for their family history. The audience is brought fully into the throes of the conflict since both sides of the argument are sincere.
The characters are young (college-aged or slightly older, in Liam's case), so the purposefully uncontrolled verbal outbursts and physical frenzies seem appropriately indulgent. We aren't watching adults--these characters are grieving college kids who don't have the social skills to solve this issue without devolving their discussions into vitriolic attacks. This is a play that certainly comes across differently in performance than in text: reading the deliciously atrocious barbs these characters spew is enough to find them (especially Liam and Daphna) unredeemable; but viewing Bad Jews in performance is a completely different experience. Without the context of an audience laughing at the more ridiculous and embarrassing aspects of the drama, the rancor and toxicity of the interactions is so intense that Bad Jews might be nothing more than an uncomfortable play with people behaving very, very badly. Yet the enthusiasm and fervor the actors infuse into the petty aspects of the conflict highlight the comedic range of characters who have been angry at each other for a very long time, probably for very infantile reasons.
Bad Jews is a story much more intricate than one based on a few cultural in-jokes and recycled shtick. It's a story about heritage and how familial and religious traditions evolve with each generation to express both the past and the future. The cousins' rowdy verbal warfare is despicable and hilarious; but when the fighting and name-calling and physical abuse comes to an awkward and abrupt end, what's left is a satisfying sense of closure. Each character is dealt a fate befitting their actions in the play. Daphna is humbled by the revelation of her own bad behavior, and Liam is saddled with the surprise downside of his life choices (an inability to avoid women like Daphna). Melody is forced into such discomfort that her "good person" persona crumbles to delightful hysteria, and Jonah, the only character whose actions are pure in their intent to honor Poppy without imposition of his own desires and self- glorification, is vindicated in the most poignant and wonderful manner. Excellent writing, a strong concept, and wildly enthralling performances, (not to mention incredible set design by Charlie Corcoran: an urban living room with a view of the freedom beyond the apartment--just outside the window, yet inaccessible to characters who won't concede their positions) make Bad Jews a must-see this season.
At the New Vic Theater
Runs through May 1st