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BWW Review: BAD JEWS Makes Great Theatre: Bitingly Funny Play Now at GableStage

What makes a bad person or a good person? Or more specifically for theatrical purposes, what makes a good Jew or a bad Jew? That's the question at the heart of the enticingly titled BAD JEWS by Joshua Harmon, a bitingly funny play now making its southeastern premiere at GableStage in Coral Gables.

BAD JEWS takes place in a chic yet sparse studio apartment on New York's Upper West Side. Cousins Daphna (Natalia Coego) and Jonah (Mark Della Ventura) are alone after their beloved grandfather's funeral. Daphna is talking---and talking and talking and talking---about their grandpa, about Jonah's parents' wealth, about her boyfriend in Israel, about her studies at Vassar, about Jonah's brother Liam (David Rosenberg) who did not make it to the funeral but is expected soon, and most of all, her own uber-Jewishness, an ideal no one else can live up to in her eyes. If she had a magic mirror, she would be ask it, "Who's the most Jewish of them all?" and the mirror would reply, "You are," just to shut her up.

Poor Jonah doesn't say much---which we learn is really the best way to survive in such close quarters with Daphna---instead playing video games and futzing with his phone.

He does, however, protest mildly when Daphna brings up a certain subject: Which of the three grandchildren will get their Holocaust-survivor grandfather's chai, a symbol meaning life that the man wore on a chain his entire life. The chai has quite a story attached to it, one that personifies Jewish survival in a deeply personal way. Daphna, who sees herself as the most Jewish and devout of the three, believes it rightfully should be passed down to her, and tries to get Jonah on her side before his brother arrives. Jonah emphatically states that he does not wish to be put in the middle.

Enter Liam, fresh from the slopes in Aspen. He is accompanied by his very blond, very sweet girlfriend Melody (Lexi Langs) a shiksa goddess if ever there was one. Daphna lays into Liam immediately about missing the funeral and a host of other things. She takes a different tact with poor Melody, turning into a hungry cat toying with her innocent, mousey prey. But before the four can settle down and get some sleep, Daphna insists on deciding which of them will inherit the chai. When she gets pushback from Liam, who has his own reasons for wanting the chai, a battle ensues about who is more entitled to it and ultimately, who is the better Jew: Daphna, with her rabbinical studies and her Israeli soldier boyfriend and intent to join the Israeli army, or Liam, with his seeming disdain for his religion, his sin of missing the funeral and his series of shiksa goddess girlfriends?

Harmon's dialogue is like linguistic gymnastics and watching Daphna and Liam go at it is enormous, if not horrifying, fun. And while Harmon's plot deals specifically with Jews, its themes are so universal that it could be applied to any ethnicity or religion, so audience members may likely see their own families within the characters. Better yet, BAD JEWS builds to a shocking ending, which is unexpected yet profound, and will leave the audience talking.

BAD JEWS is the kind of play director Joseph Adler relishes---the comedy, the drama, the moral dilemmas, the questions it poses to the audience---they're all right up his alley. He keeps the pace fast and furious, and has assembled a talented young cast to bring it all to life.

Coego, a real-life beauty, disappears completely into frizzy-haired, plain-Jane Daphna. In lesser hands Daphna could turn into a one-note caricature, but Coego gives her depth. Even when you want to strangle Daphna---and you will want to strangle Daphna---you find her fascinating. This is Coego's breakout performance, proving she's a force to be reckoned with.

Rosenberg matches Coego blow for blow with the dialogue as well as the passion each feels for what they believe is their rightful inheritance. Langs is perfect as Melody, the outsider forced to witness this family's dynamics. Langs also has her own spotlight moment when she tries to comfort Daphna that is beyond funny. Or sad. Or both. Della Ventura, an affable, teddy bear of a guy, delivers an understated performance that is key to the play's shocking ending.

BAD JEWS presents the audience with a cornucopia of questions and food for thought. Don't miss it.

BAD JEWS runs through December 21 at GableStage in Coral Gables. For tickets and more information, visit GableStage.com.


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From This Author Mary Damiano

Mary Damiano is a writer, editor, and theater critic based in Fort Lauderdale. Originally from Jersey City, Mary’s love affair with theater began when she (read more...)