Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Reviews: BAD JEWS a Riotous Dramedy at the Geffen

Bad Jews/by Joshua Harmon/directed by Matt Shakman/Geffen Playhouse, Gil Cates Theater/through July 19

Excessively harsh reality is at the core of most current popular dramedies as it is on television. A character cannot be rude or abrasive enough to arouse a viewer's attention or glean laughs. It's particularly characteristic of the irritating females who talk too fast, too loud and scream their shrewish lungs out. It makes me happy that I live alone; and yes, I do care and respect others and their feelings; but, being pleasant nowadays is considered boring and in drama, it will never win awards, so on with the show. In Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews currently onstage at the Geffen Playhouse there is such a character Daphna (Molly Ephraim), Hebrew for Diana, who with her two cousins Jonah (Raviv Ullman) and Liam (Ari Brand) are in New York to pay homage to their dead grandfather, their beloved Poppy, a Holocaust survivor. Daphna is referred to by Liam as a super Jew.

She lives to keep the Jewish traditions alive. She will not allow them to die, but at the expense of driving everyone around her into an annoyingly uncomfortable frenzy. She's not the kind of girl you really want to be around. She's unpleasant, hyper and super critical of everyone including Liam's new girlfriend Melody (Lili Fuller), a sweet docile girl from Delaware - a non Jew - who is not particularly bright or well trained - she certainly cannot live up to Daphna's Vassar standards of education - but she is kind, considerate and compassionate of one's feelings,all of which Daphna is not. The crass, rude reactions may indeed be insecurity around others, but the main focus in this play is what Daphna wants. Poppy has given his cherished chai, a gold medallion which survived the Holocaust, to Liam, who Daphna considers the least likely candidate in the family to wear it. She is, by her own admission, the only one in the family who really cared about Poppy and who really wants to carry on the tradition. What will she do when Liam refuses to give it to her? And especially when she learns that he plans to give it to his fiancee Melody in place of a ring? All hell breaks loose.

Extreme Jewishness to playwright Joshua Harmon is obviously urgent, as the other-worldly quality of the Jewish religious tradition is fading away in our country. The concentration camp survivors are dying out and sadly, most Jewish youth have not experienced enough to preserve their heritage and carry the legacy forward. Some one of the characters says that it is easier than ever to be a Jew, but what exactly does that mean? Will the event of the past be remembered with significance and fervor? This urgency requires a character of Daphna's oversized dimensions, who will go over the top, who will die to keep Jewish tradition a living, breathing entity. Liam's interests lie in the Asian culture, and Daphna berates him for this. Why should it interest him at the expense of ignoring his own? So what is at the heart of the play is a dynamic debate - sometimes out of control - of whether it is nobler in the mind to be a super Jew or to care more about everyone else...and what ensues is scathingly funny as the characters, like beasts, claw away at each other with feverish, ferocious intensity. Remember God of Carnage where the two couples turn into beasts of prey? When we humans fight, we often fight to the death, like ...animals.

And there's another element of Bad Jews that is relevant to me. Its display of demeaning, making fun of, criticizing others is universal to all people whether Jewish or Christian. We selfishly tend to make ourselves more important than others...and also to place too much value on material possessions. Can't you remember Poppy without having his chai? I remember an incident at my mother's funeral, when a selfish aunt asked that a ring she had given my mother be taken off her hand before the coffin closed. Was she sad because my mother had passed or was the ring her mission? We can all go too far in the pursuit of what we want at the expense of others' feelings.

The cast is outstanding. Under Matt Shakman's upbeat and fluid direction, everyone shines. Ephraim is stellar as Daphna, playing her savageness for all its worth. Brand, as well, does not give an inch, holding his ground until the very end. Fuller makes Melody a real curiosity...and likable. Her "Summertime" as she attempts to quiet Daphna is hilarious. Here we go, as we all lose our respect for her sweet simplicity and laugh at her lack of skill. ... And she got a degree in opera? Ullman as Jonah keeps his character a mystery until the very end. Unlike Daphna, he keeps his mouth shut, does not want to get involved, but, when all is said and done, his pain for Poppy and his memory is more shattering than Daphna's. John Arnone's set design of the cramped New York apartment is appropriate, but it's what's up front that counts.

Go see Bad Jews primarily for its fiercely irreverent, blatantly caustic humor, but be prepared to listen and learn from Joshua Harmon's beautifully written script about the value of devotion and harmony.

Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes, and More from Your Favorite Broadway Stars

Related Articles View More Los Angeles Stories

From This Author Don Grigware